Riddick, Atkinson ready for heavier load

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Cierre Wood's message to Theo Riddick was fairly simple: Go 2-0.

To Riddick, the man taking the bulk of the carries with Wood suspended the first two weeks, it really is that simple. The running back-turned-slot receiver-turned-running back is again in his natural position, the one he has played since he was 8-years old. And despite the absence of a 1,000-yard rusher ahead of him, the senior isn't looking at Notre Dame's first two games as an opportunity to prove himself.

"I wouldn't say anything along those lines," Riddick said Wednesday. "It's just being given the opportunity, and having the chance to settle down in a position I came here for, came here to play."

That opportunity opened up again when both the running backs and slot receivers fell under the jurisdiction of assistant Tony Alford this season. The hybrid role seems a natural fit for athletes like Riddick and the speedy George Atkinson III, who was used sparingly as a runner and receiver during a freshman campaign that saw him return two kickoffs for scores.

"It's knowing the offense, knowing what routes to run, and reading coverages," Atkinson said of his role this season. "And that's something we really didn't have to learn that well last year, so it's really helped me become a better football player, learning the defense and coverages and blitzes and everything else. So it makes you really more of a complete player."

The Irish are hoping that Atkinson and Riddick, who have a combined 63 career carries for 269 yards and two touchdowns, can fill the production void left by Wood, who rushed for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011.

Riddick returned to the backfield for the final two games of last season after Jonas Gray tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He called carrying the ball this preseason "rejuvenating" and, despite his best efforts, couldn't help but acknowledge the differences from his role the past two years.

"I don't think so. Actually, let me take that back: Yeah, there's definitely a difference," he said with a laugh. "At slot, you're not really getting the ball, in terms of getting carries. But being the hybrid, you're getting reverses, it's a whole new ballgame."

A ballgame that, head coach Brian Kelly suggests, suits Riddick's style perfectly.

"It's a guy that was bred for this position in terms of if you call it a hybrid or whatever you want to call it," Kelly said. "Running the ball is his first love. It's something that he's accustomed to through high school and in his first year or so here. And we cross‑trained him, so he fits terrifically right now."

Kelly added that Atkinson, who dazzled in the spring game with 124 rushing yards (but lost two fumbles), is evolving, and the sophomore has not been shy about asking Riddick for help in balancing the new duties.

With Wood shelved for two games, the learning curve has been accelerated for the crowded backfield.

"Learning the offense, because he's basically that hybrid," Atkinson said. "He knows what to do and how to read the coverages and things like that, playing receiver in the past. So I just picked his brain, just knowing when a corner is really bailing instead of like a soft-two, and reading a safety's keys. He's really helped with that in coverages."