In the aftermath of Saturday’s extremely disappointing season opening loss to South Florida, one of the popular topics on the message boards since then is idea of moving Theo Riddick back to running back after his underwhelming performance.
While Riddick’s performance certainly left a lot to be desired, it’s much too early to give up on him as the slot receiver after the promise he showed last year in the position. Before suffering injuries last year Riddick was starting to emerge as a legit playmaker and his hands were never a problem – at least not to the extent they were this past weekend when he dropped multiple very catchable passes that simply need to be caught.
It’s tough to say what the cause of Riddick’s struggles were Saturday. Perhaps too much is being asked of him right now before he is fully settled in at wide receiver? Notre Dame is using Riddick as the slot receiver and the top kick and punt returner right now. That’s a lot to ask of one player – especially one who is struggling at his primary position at the moment.
Kelly was asked on Sunday if Riddick would remain as the punt returner and despite conceding that Riddick didn’t look good back there, he said the junior would be back out there again this week. “We’re going to start Theo again at that position. He’s a one-time starter,” Kelly said yesterday. “Obviously he didn’t look great back there. I was probably as nervous as anybody else when the ball went up in the air. But we’ve got to get him through that. He’s capable of doing it.”
I can’t help but wonder however if reducing Riddick’s workload and letting him focus on just being the slot receiver right now might alleviate some pressure and allow him to focus on making plays in the passing game.
Notre Dame certainly has some other options as a punt returner. John Goodman, while not flashy, showed solid hands as a returner last year even if he did fair catch the vast majority of the fields field – at least he caught them. Riddick struggled securing punts with one brutal fumbled punt and another two he nearly fumbled. Notre Dame has several other options at kick returner such as freshman George Atkinson.
Even with some other options though, Kelly sounded determined to see some production from Riddick as a returner when asked about him after the game on Saturday. “”He’s got to do it,” Kelly said. “I told him to get his butt back out there. If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody. We’ve got to get him to that position.”"
Whatever course of action Kelly and staff decide to take, wide receivers coach Tony Alford has his work cut out for him this week as Riddick was shown looking very distraught on the Notre Dame sideline a few times throughout the course of the game. Alford needs to restore Riddick’s confidence in a hurry because Riddick has the ability to make big plays for this offense starting this weekend when he will be a matchup problem for the Michigan defense. Of course being a matchup problem for a defense is only really a problem for them if you come down with the ball.
Based on Kelly’s comments Saturday it’s obvious he’s aware that a player he has labeled as a playmaker for this team is in need of a confidence boost at this point. “The only thing I reminded Theo is he can’t let his disappointment or emotion show in the way he plays. He’s got to bounce back, and he’s going to have to bounce back for us next week and have a great game,” Kelly said following Saturday’s loss.
It will be very interesting to see how Riddick bounces back this week. There should be plenty of opportunities for him this weekend where Notre Dame can get him in favorable matches as they did this last weekend. If he can make the most of them, the talk of him moving back to running back should quiet down – even if the depth at running back looks a little more precarious that it did in the pre-season when it was highlighted as one of the areas of concern for this offense. A few more drops, however, and the calls for Riddick to be replaced will only grow louder and louder.
While it certainly is too early to give up on Riddick as the slot wide receiver, it’s not too early to wonder where Robby Toma was on Saturday. Toma played well with Riddick sidelined last year but he wasn’t heard from at all on Saturday despite Riddick’s struggles.
Toma didn’t light the world on fire with just 14 catches for 187 yards in 2010, but his game is tailor made for the slot and is one of the most sure handed receivers on the team – a trait that ought to earn him some additional playing time consider all of the dropped passes we saw last weekend.