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Quick adjustment

Sam Werner | Thursday, October 7, 2010

Looking at the top of Notre Dame’s receiving statistics, one might reasonably expect to find junior receiver Michael Floyd or tight end Kyle Rudolph. In fact, the leading Irish pass-catcher so far this season is a player who wasn’t even on the receiver depth chart a year ago.

Not that Theo Riddick ever doubted his ability to get there.

Making the switch

The sophomore moved from running back to receiver in the offseason. While some players may have faced an extended adjustment period, Riddick slid in right away.

“This is everything I expected,” Riddick said. “It started ever since Coach Kelly got here, so the transition’s been a while. I’m starting to see the light.”

Riddick said then-running backs coach Tony Alford called him over winter break last year and asked if he would do anything to help the team win. After the New Jersey native right away responded that he would, Alford asked if he would be willing to move to the receiver position. Riddick said he immediately accepted the change.

After agreeing, Riddick said he got to work right away preparing for his new role.

“I tried to watch film,” he said. “It was hard for me because I didn’t have to know that much about coverages [as a running back], so I tried to teach myself.”

While the tactical side of the position may have taken some additional time, Riddick said he spent most of his offseason trying to prepare for Irish coach Brian Kelly’s new high-paced offensive system from a physical standpoint.

“I was just trying to get into better condition,” Riddick said. “That was the main thing once I found out [about the position change], because in a spread offense you’re running 24/7.”

Riddick said the other receivers were incredibly helpful to him in making the switch, specifically Floyd. He added that Floyd helped him learn the tricks of the trade — including breaking down coverages and learning to run his routes.

“If it wasn’t for [Floyd], I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Riddick said. “He’s just communicated picking up on all the little things, trying to make me better every day.”

Riddick also had help from another familiar face. When Kelly was hired in December, he decided to retain Alford on his staff, but as the wide receivers coach. Riddick said working with Alford last year made his development as a receiver even easier.

“It helps a lot, because you actually build a relationship,” Riddick said. “I’m not saying I don’t have a relationship with the other coaches, but I knew him before so it was more of a comfort zone coming right in.”

Fitting right in

Riddick said the first time he actually felt like a receiver came over the summer — even though it may have been apparent to his teammates first.

“I started to see the development and a lot of other players did as well,” Riddick said.

“They started like chuckling and saying side comments like, ‘Hey, you’re starting to look like a wide receiver,’ and I didn’t really see it at the time, but now I do.”

His growing comfort at the new position was becoming clear to the coaching staff as well.

“Back in the summer even, I said that I thought he was going to really come on and be pretty good and I think that’s held true,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “We could see it during summer camp that he was really close.”

Riddick’s ability to adapt quickly was essential to the Irish offense, because as the slot receiver, he’s expected to be one of the most versatile players on the field.

“In our offense, he’s a guy that we can get the ball to very quickly a number of different ways. We haven’t handed the ball off to him very much, but we can do that,” Molnar said. “He’s in close proximity to the quarterback, he’s in a good position to throw screens to — bubble passes — and also the number of times he’s working against linebackers rather than corners, so sometimes we have a real physical mismatch.”

Kelly specifically noted Riddick’s ability essentially to neutralize Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich last weekend.

“You take a Herzlich out of the game against B.C. because he’s got to stay out over Theo Riddick the whole game,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if he had a couple of tackles, but he was effectively taken out of the ballgame.”

Riddick is also valuable when teams elect to double cover Floyd or Rudolph, because it will leave Riddick in single coverage, often times against a mismatched linebacker.

“[Floyd and Rudolph] both have been double covered a number of times, and when those things happen, that usually singles up somebody and that’s what’s really happening right now with Theo,” Molnar said.

Turning it on

Through two games this season, Riddick caught only four passes for 52 yards. In the last three, he’s caught 26 balls for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

“We knew that it would take a game or two to really gain the confidence that he needed and so far so good,” Molnar said.

Riddick echoed his coach, saying he simply needed to find his comfort zone as a receiver.

“I’m just getting more comfortable — completely, completely comfortable in a sense — knowing what I have to do and reading the defense better than I was,” he said.

Last year, Riddick rushed for 160 yards on 29 attempts and returned kicks for the Irish. He said the experience of simply being on the field, even if it was at a different position, has helped him excel this year.

“The game is a lot slower,” Riddick said. “Coming out as a freshman, everything was a lot quicker, everything moved quicker.

“Just being out there and knowing that I could perform on that level gave me that confidence.”

Even throughout inconsistent playing time a year ago, Riddick said he never stopped learning the game.

“I mean, even though I wasn’t in, I was always in tune on the sideline, trying to know what the call was to envision what was going to go on, so nothing really changed,” he said.

Now that he’s ingrained himself at the receiver position, all that’s left to do is turn the Irish into a winning football team.

“I’m just trying to win ball games,” he said. “If my play can develop to a victory, that’s all I care about.”

When the Irish fell to 1-3 two weeks ago, the criticism inevitably started to swirl around campus. Riddick said he tried to ignore the negative vibes and just focus on football and his teammates.

“We were 1-3 and some people started to give up on us and stuff like that, but we don’t really worry about that,” he said. “We just go out there and play for one another.”

After the win against Boston College, though, he said the mood inside the football program has changed dramatically.

“Everyone’s happy, a lot of smiles definitely and more to come,” Riddick said.

Riddick said that he didn’t have any specific personal goals for the season, only that he wanted to become the best receiver he could be.

“I just want to get a lot better, and be able to catch every ball,” he said. “I don’t want to catch 90 and drop one.”