Without the bulldozer size to bowl over defenses or even the neatly packaged collegiate pedigree of being a four-year starter at tailback, Theo Riddick has somehow captured the essence of this Notre Dame team that is another 60 workmanlike minutes from a national title.
Riddick is a whatever-it-takes player on a whatever-it-takes team, and the 5-11, 200-pound senior knows it will take one more incredible effort Monday night at Sun Life Stadium against heavily favored Alabama to officially stamp Notre Dame’s return to glory.
“We rise to the occasion. You can see that in big games,” Riddick said Friday morning in the kind of calm, steady tone that, again, characterizes the often-plodding but always in control team he plays for. “But we still have one more game.”
It will be Riddick’s final one at Notre Dame to cap a whirlwind career that he began at running back — his natural position — as a freshman before switching to wide receiver during his sophomore and junior seasons. But there was one more career curveball that put Riddick right back in his rightful place for a senior season that has taken him to the brink of a championship. The change actually happened late last season after running back Jonas Gray was injured, when his coaches asked Riddick to return to his backfield safe haven.
“I feel like I’m at ease [now]. Everything slows down tremendously,” said Riddick, who rushed for 4,042 yards and 52 touchdowns during a spectacular career at Immaculata High in New Jersey.
Riddick responded to his one final collegiate position switch with a combustible fury, rushing for a team-leading 880 yards this season, ripping off 4.9 yards per carry with five touchdowns and gaining a team-high 1,244 all-purpose yards. But he didn’t leave receiver behind either, finding holes in defenses from the slot position for 35 catches, which ranks third on the Irish. He is the deadliest of dual threats, and the man assigned to limit him Monday is well aware.
Versatility a plus
“I didn’t think a former receiver would run with so much power, but he runs with power,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “[He has] one-step quickness. Explosive. Great receiver. Good stiff-arm.”
In other words, Riddick does everything well enough to be a certifiable weapon without overwhelming you with one particular thing. He can sneak up on you, just as the Irish have snuck up on everyone to arrive here.
“[Coach Brian Kelly] has managed us,” Riddick said. “He knows the formula. He believes in everyone. He always believes anyone can make a big play. That’s why we’re here.”
Their layoff has been endless, the Irish clinching their spot in the grandest of games on Nov. 24 with a victory at Southern California that Riddick helped author with a career-high 146 yards and the team’s only touchdown. It was a 22-13 win that had all the grind-it-out ingredients of a 2012 Notre Dame victory, including five field goals and a heroic goal-line stand to seal the game.
“Coach Kelly called my number,” Riddick said of that night, “and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity I had.”
And if this Notre Dame team is anything, it is opportunistic. The Irish just win, thanks to selfless players such as Riddick, who converted a team-high 49 first downs on the ground and even moved the chains 15 times through the air.