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April 13, 2012

In with the old and the new

 

It seems like just the other day, Notre Dame’s sports information department was bringing the two freshman running backs into Isban Auditorium to meet the media for the first time.

Just like a couple of youngsters, they laughed and joked around, making funny faces at one another while being bombarded with questions from the press.

Just a couple of happy-go-lucky kids soaking up the experience.

Then things got serious for Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.

Charlie Weis decided the Irish would preserve the first year of Wood’s eligibility, and Riddick was thrust into the kick return job while serving as a back-up running back. A year later, Wood was in the mix at running back behind Armando Allen, and Riddick was asked to move to the Z receiver position under the new Brian Kelly regime.

It was a tough transition for Riddick, who, despite making 84 catches and scoring six touchdowns in two seasons, never fully grasped the nuances of the new position.

But after a move back to running back late in the ’11 season, Riddick is once again listed among the running backs with his old partner, Wood, for what will be their final season together.

A new comedy routine can’t be too far behind.

“I love it,” said Riddick of his return to the backfield with Wood. “It’s more of a comfort zone, but at the same time, we’re competitors.

“We laugh, we smile, but we love to push each other. As much as we joke, we love to get serious and really work. To have him back there makes us reminisce a lot more to freshman year.”

While Wood was adapting to the notion of not playing a down in 2009, Riddick carried 29 times for a 5.5-yard rushing average while returning 37 kicks for a 22.9-yard average. The transition to Z receiver the following year was difficult. Although the position was deemed the best fit for Riddick - and the best move for the team -- the growing pains were evident.

This spring, Riddick is dabbling in both positions, and his carefree demeanor this week was a bit of a departure from some of his more subdued interviews in recent months. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

“Being back at running back is a lot of fun,” Riddick said. “I get to be a lot more creative and I’ve got to get the ball in my hands.”

Yet Wednesday, the way the coaching staff chose to get the ball in Riddick’s hands was at the Z position.

“Today, I was primarily a Z, just trying to get reps at it and keep my mind fresh,” said Riddick following Notre Dame’s 10th practice of the spring. “The more positions you play, the better chance you have of getting the ball and actually getting on the field. Being a wide receiver definitely has helped my hands, so that’s one unique quality that I have.

“The whole experience (of learning two positions) has helped me know route concepts. I can definitely tell where we need to be and the type of offense just from the route concepts alone.

“Coach Kelly’s philosophy of being more detailed oriented, just knowing my reads and paying more attention rather than being nonchalant, has helped. That little thing goes a long way.”

So, too, does the new approach that Riddick has noticed along the offensive line with coach Harry Hiestand. Riddick - a rock-solid 5-foot-11, 199 pounds - has sensed a change in demeanor running behind this unit.

“They’re more angry,” said Riddick of the offensive line. “They want to hit people. They’re more versatile and very physical up front. It just feels like they’re hitting someone non-stop. They want to be more aggressive.”

Riddick wants to be more aggressive as well. This is, after all, his last hurrah in a Notre Dame uniform, and the demand for touches with his running back mate has intensified his approach.

“It makes you work every day,” Riddick said. “Rather than take days off and say, ‘I’m in this specific position and I’m at this rank,’ everyone is on an even playing field.”

That includes Riddick and Wood, who came of age in 2011 with 1,102 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. The competitive juices are flowing every time they take the field this spring.

“No doubt, when Cierre makes a good run, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to step up and make me a good run!’” Riddick said.

Two backs battling for one football, and having a little fun along the way. Theo Riddick is heading down the last leg of his Notre Dame journey with a big ol’ smile on his face.

 



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