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Toma excels as slot receiver

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Robby Toma has always embraced being the little guy. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he doesn’t have any other choice.

“Even when I was growing up I’ve always been a cocky, pushy guy,” Toma said. “Just growing up, I’ve always thought I was better and that I could go out and win no matter what situation I was given. I’ve always been confident.”

When Signing Day approached for Toma and close friend – and fellow graduate of Punahou High School in Honolulu – Manti Te’o, the two were set to go in different directions: Toma to UCLA and Te’o to Notre Dame. In a last ditch recruiting effort by former Irish coach Charlie Weis, Toma was persuaded to reconsider and ultimately faxed his letter of intent to Notre Dame.

“It was definitely difficult,” the former three-star recruit said. “Over recruiting, you gain trust and a bond with these coaches, but in the end it’s a business and coaches are going to make a decision to benefit them and their family, and I had to make the best decision for myself.

“[In Jan. 2011], my recruiting coach, [Norm] Chow, was at Utah, so as mad as [UCLA was] at me, I would’ve been there and he would’ve been gone. It wasn’t difficult.

As I look back on it, I couldn’t be happier with the decision.”
But that doesn’t mean the ride was always a smooth one at a university nearly 5,000 miles away from his friends and family.

“It was an adjustment being away from home and getting used to the speed of the game, the strength of the players,” Toma said. “The first couple days of camp were rough on [Te’o and I], but once we settled in, we just got back to football and what we wanted to do. It was just a comfort level for us.”

Toma said the adjustment was made easier by technology and the ability to contact family members and friends via phone or Skype.

“I couldn’t imagine not talking to some of my friends and family that I talked to almost every day,” he said. “So it really hasn’t been that difficult and having Manti and [Hawaiian junior nose guard Kona Schwenke] here has definitely been a blessing and when you are missing home, you can look across and see a familiar face.”
Even before Toma had to deal with icicles instead of palm trees, he first had to overcome a depth chart on which he was initially nowhere to be found.

“It was tough,” he said. “I was redshirted the first few weeks, and then Coach Weis called me in after a bunch of injuries, so I played a few games my freshman year. You can’t get down on yourself. … You just need to learn from your mistakes and that’s all you can do as a football player.

“It really tested my faith. My parents have always been there, but I just kept going, kept grinding and my opportunities came.”
In the seventh game of his collegiate career, Toma finally broke through and recorded two receptions for 13 yards against Boston College. He caught another pass the following week but, following a coaching change, Toma needed to hit the reset button once again.

As a sophomore in 2010, Toma didn’t see any meaningful action until the 4-4 Irish faced Tulsa. After Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones went down with injuries, No. 9 was called into action. A program-low in the form of a 28-27 loss to the Golden Hurricane resulted in an individual breakthrough for Toma, as he jumped into duty and caught four passes for 67 yards.

“I didn’t play a snap, and then a couple injuries happened and they threw me in and I started playing well and they kept me in the whole game and I started the rest of the season,” he said. “When the opportunity presented itself, I’m glad I was ready for it, and I showed the coaches I could play, so that might be the greatest moment I’ve had since being here.”

Since then, Toma has been a consistent performer out of the slot position for the Irish.

“My whole thing was I just wanted to be a part of the offense and help out any way I could, whether it’s blocking or catching passes,” he said. “We’re [undefeated] and it’s a blessing to be on this team and help out in any way I can.”

But even now that Toma has a stranglehold on the slot position, he stays true to his size and spunk.

“I know I’m quicker than most guys, so I know I have advantages over people and people have advantages over me, but I try to really focus on my strengths,” he said. “When I do have a weakness, I try to work on it in the offseason and in practice.”

Toma said he refuses to trash talk with an opponent unless he feels he or a teammate has been disrespected. Earlier this season, when the Irish were warming up at Oklahoma, Toma said he couldn’t resist.

“A guy came at me and was laughing at my chin hair, saying, ‘How long have you been growing it?’ or something childish and I came right back at him and Theo [Riddick] and [senior running back] Cierre [Wood] lost it on the bench,” he said. “We shouldn’t be doing that, but there’s certain guys who have that on and off switch and as long as you can stay focused, I don’t see a problem with it.

“Every stadium I go to I get ripped by the crowd because of my size, but I look forward to what the opposing crowd has to say to me.”
Toma’s attitude is even directed toward Irish coach Brian Kelly on occasion.

“In practice, they’ll be calling out certain personnel for running back and I’ll be in [Kelly’s] ear like, ‘Call mine.’ He’ll just look at me and start smiling,” Toma said.
“If I didn’t want to get the ball, there’d be a problem.”

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]