Toma steps up in Riddick’s absence
Chris Masoud | Sunday, November 13, 2011
LANDOVER, Md. — One man goes down, the next man comes in.
For a Notre Dame squad plagued by injury this season, Irish coach Brian Kelly’s philosophy of replacing injured athletes with capable replacements has been embraced successfully at several positions. Junior Robby Toma’s career-high seven catch, 73-yard performance Saturday as a starter in place of injured wide receiver Theo Riddick was just another chapter of the same book.
“He’s been waiting for his chance, his opportunity, and he’s a classic case of our ‘next man in’ [philosophy],” Kelly said.
Toma is no stranger to the starting lineup, moving up to the first team against Army and USC last season following injuries to Riddick and sophomore receiver TJ Jones. When Riddick was unable to recover from a hamstring injury in time for Saturday’s contest, Toma said Kelly notified him just moments before kickoff.
“Coach [Kelly] came up to me and asked me if I was in, and I didn’t know, so I looked up at the board, and I told him I was in,” he said.
Featuring soft hands and uncommon acceleration, the 5-foot-9-inch Toma ignited an Irish offense in the first half. The receiver contributed a 26-yard catch to keep Notre Dame’s first drive alive, eventually leading to the first of five offensive touchdowns in the game.
“Last year I was put in a similar situation when Theo also went down, so I was ready for this. Football’s a game I love, and I prepare for it, so it felt like a normal game for me,” Toma said.
“Obviously keeping in mind that one of my best friends, Theo, went down, but just to get out there and play felt really good.”
Toma credits the talented cast of fellow Irish receivers for drawing the Terrapin defense’s attention away from him, allowing Toma to find open space and create an easy target for sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees.
“[Toma] played great,” Rees said. “He’s a special player, and he’s got a knack out there on the field. It’s good to have him back out there. We can’t wait to get Theo back and get all those playmakers out there together.”
The Laie, Hawaii, native, who maintains a close relationship with junior linebacker Manti Te’o, committed to Notre Dame after the two led Punahou School to its first state football championship in 2008. Toma said both players take a similar approach to the game rooted in their high school playing days.
“Growing up, football is a game that our parents and our friends and people we look up to play,” he said. “It really isn’t a game where we’re from, it’s a lifestyle, and we just love playing football.”
While Te’o became one of the nation’s most heralded recruits, Toma’s commitment to Notre Dame under former coach Charlie Weis went largely unnoticed. Despite less attention and less playing time than Te’o thus far into their careers, Toma’s determination and disciplined approached carried him through a difficult period.
“It was tough. Everybody had their two cents,” he said. “They thought my recruiting was this, or they thought it was that. I just never paid attention to it because I felt Coach Weis recruited me because he felt I could play. Now, I feel like I’m showing everybody that I was recruited to come here.”
While Riddick’s status remains questionable for Notre Dame’s next contest against Boston College, moving forward Kelly said the coaching staff faces the additional challenge of incorporating both slot receivers into the Irish attack.
“Well, I think Robby is somebody we’ve always had high regard for,” he said. “We’ve tried to get him in the games, and I think we’ve managed to get him in early in games. It’s incumbent on us now to continue that rotation with Robby and Theo when Theo’s back.”