Theo Riddick back where he belongs

Theo Riddick embraced returning to running back and has excelled for the Irish. Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRE

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tony Alford has this story he likes to tell about Theo Riddick.

Alford, in his own unique way, has seen Riddick from a view few others have during the latter's four years at Notre Dame. From running backs coach under former Irish head man Charlie Weis to receivers coach the past two seasons to a hybrid role of running backs and slot receivers coach this year, the assistant's recent career path has all but mirrored that of Notre Dame's leading rusher.

So in the spring, shortly after Riddick's return to the backfield -- where he would bear some of his old responsibilities as a slot man, too -- the senior messed up an assignment. Bad.

Head coach Brian Kelly, in no pleasant terms, let Riddick hear about it. And the response was night and day from what Alford had come to expect.

"When I saw a distinct change is when Coach Kelly ripped him a new one for a mistake that was made and got after him," Alford said. "And instead of Theo going in the tank, which he had a tendency to do, and to shut things off when Coach would get after him, he looked up and said: 'Yes, sir. I got it.' He patted Coach on the rear end, said: 'I got it,' turned around, walked away and got it. Versus pouting, where he had a tendency to do that earlier in his career.

"Which told me that he's finally getting it. This is not a personal attack. We're trying to get you better."

Just how much better is tough to quantify from a statistical standpoint. Riddick's final position switch has given way to 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, in addition to 35 catches for 364 yards and another score in the familiar duties of pass-catcher.

Then there was the regular-season finale at USC, when Riddick totaled 179 yards and a touchdown in setting up Notre Dame's Jan. 7 date with Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship. He earned a game ball from Kelly in the locker room afterward and even higher praise later at the podium, with the head coach saying that, if one needed to know about this year's Fighting Irish, a glance at the tailback was all that would be necessary.

"There's been, for me, always that love of playing the game," Kelly said recently about Riddick. "He loves to play. He comes to practice with that same kind of attitude every single day. I think he needed to get more comfortable as a player. He at times was not as comfortable at the wide receiver position.

"I think when we got him back with the ball in his hand as a running back he really, really blossomed as a complete player. I think the stages that he went through this year were that he exerted his will. He played physical. He had a determination; he made a number of big plays during the year."

It is not that the move to receiver his sophomore and junior seasons was a failure -- he netted 78 catches for 850 yards and six scores -- but the backfield had been Riddick's domain ever since he started playing in his preteen years.

It was where he starred for Pierce Frauenheim at Immaculata (N.J.) High, rushing for more than 4,000 yards and 52 career touchdowns while dabbling in the role of safety for the Spartans.

"When you're back at something where you're so comfortable at, it's not much for you to really learn," Riddick said. "It's less frustration, I would say. But in doing so it's definitely given me the ability to play both and be great for this offense."

Said right tackle Christian Lombard: "He's fearless. He'll hit those holes that other guys will be afraid to hit, because they don't have confidence in the line that they'll be there. Just his effort and desire is just something that you admire."

Look no further than late in the third quarter of Notre Dame's Oct. 20 tilt with BYU, with a 14-7 deficit threatening the Irish's perfect 6-0 campaign. Riddick took the handoff from Tommy Rees on third-and-1 and ran into a brick wall, the Cougars' second-ranked rushing defense seemingly denying the Irish one more time.

Out of the scrum emerged Riddick, somehow escaping for 55 yards and setting up a crucial field goal in an eventual 17-14 win. His 6-yard carry on a late third-and-5 served as the final dagger.

"It's one thing to go back to a position where you feel comfortable," Kelly said. "But when he went back there, he impacted our games with a senior's kind of resolve, that 'I'm going to find a way to win this game.'"

When fellow senior Cierre Wood followed an 1,100-yard season by getting himself suspended for this year's first two games, Riddick seized the starting role and never looked back, rushing for 107 yards in the opener against Navy before his roommate returned and helped take some of the load off.

Wood has carried it 10 or more times in six of his 10 games, netting 740 yards and four touchdowns on the season.

"It just proves humility to me, the way he's accepted it," Frauenheim said of Riddick's role this year. "He's just a leader, and he doesn't have a selfishness. He doesn't have any jealousies. He's very, very humble and I think he appreciates this great opportunity."

Alford can see things coming full circle in the give-and-take among Riddick, Wood and sophomore back George Atkinson III after mistakes, the coach getting to the next rep quicker and quicker with the trio back there shoring up loose ends among themselves.

Little moments like those hardly resemble the quiet 18-year-old Alford remembers arriving on campus four years ago, why Alford loves to use the "boy to man" cliche when talking about his protege Riddick.

"He's not a real big talker, but you turn the tape on you see him playing hard, and that's leadership in itself because his teammates see that," Alford said. "They see the effort he's giving day in and day out.

"Day in and day out, just being around that kid has been unbelievable for me. He's made my job extremely enjoyable. Not because he's played well, because I love the kid."