NDs Riddick, Atkinson ready to fill in at running back
Posted: 08/28/2012 at 8:55 pm
By: Rachel Terlep
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Air Force's Anthony Woodling Jr. (4) and Brian Lindsay (31) try to tackle Notre Dame's Theo Riddick in the first half 10/8/2011. ¬ (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen) ¬ ¬ ¬
Air Force's Erik Soderberg tackles Notre Dame's George Atkinson III along the sidelines 10/8/2011 in the first half. ¬ (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen) ¬ ¬ ¬
Notre Dame's Theo Riddick is tackled by Air Force's Brian Lindsay in the first half 10/8/2011. ¬ (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen) ¬ ¬ ¬
Theo Riddick runs past Air Force's Jon Davis on Riddick's way to a first half touchdown 10/8/2011. ¬ (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen) ¬ ¬ ¬
Notre Dame Wide Receiver Theo Riddick runs the ball down the field while being chased by Navy's Kwesi Mitchell during the first half of Saturday's home game at Notre Dame Stadium. (Truth Photo by Delayna Earley)
Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III (4) catches a ball during a drill at the morning practice Wednesday, August 8, 2012. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard)
Notre Dame's Theo Riddick (6) attempts a catch as South Florida's Sam Barrington (36) and Michael Lanaris (55) close in on him on defense during first half action at the season opener Saturday, September 3, 2011. ¬ (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard)
Notre Dame's George Atkinson III tries to run away from Air Force's Erik Soderberg in the first half 10/8/2011. ¬ (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen) ¬ ¬ ¬
Starters have been dropping like flies off the Irish roster since the spring: Aaron Lynch’s departure in April, Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese’s arrests in May and Lo Wood’s injury earlier in August.
Add Cierre Wood to that list after head coach Brian Kelly suspended the running back for two games for violating team policy.
The bad news is the Irish lose their first 1,000-yard running back since 2006. The good news is that they don’t have to turn to a greenhorn to shoulder the responsibility.
Enter senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III, Notre Dame’s new one-two punch for the next two games.
Riddick came to Notre Dame as a tailback, was moved to slot receiver as a sophomore, then was yanked back to running back late in his junior year after Jonas Gray was injured.
He never quite found his place in the ever-changing Notre Dame offense his first three years.
The 5-foot-11 back from Manville, N.J., stuck mostly to kickoff returns as a freshman and caught a total of 67 passes for 850 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver his sophomore and junior years.
His ground game consists of 54 for carries 252 yards in all three seasons. He has yet to score a rushing touchdown.
Now he and Atkinson play a hybrid role between running back and slot receiver under Kelly’s new offense, where the head coach said both backs are thriving.
“Theo certainly is a guy that has a lot of experience at the wide receiver position,” Kelly said at a press conference Tuesday. “So you have somebody that is extremely effective at catching the football, so really, it’s a guy that was bred for this position in terms of if you call it a hybrid or whatever you want to call it; running the ball is his first love and it’s something that he’s accustomed to through high school and his first year or so here. And we crosstrained him, so he fits terrifically right now.”
For Riddick, moving back to running back during fall camp was like re-learning to ride a bicycle — there was no rust.
“I came here as a running back, it’s always been my love,” Riddick said. “At slot, you’re not really getting the ball, in terms of carries, but being in a hybrid, you’re getting reverses, it’s a whole new ball game.”
Riddick refuses to get caught up in the drama surrounding Cierre Wood or the speculation around his ability to fill in for Wood.
He says he isn’t motivated by the chance to prove himself.
“I’m motivated by the simple fact that I want to start off 1-0,” he said. “That’s the big thing.”
The long, lanky Atkinson sits behind Riddick on the depth charts and expects to see plenty of playing time on Saturday.
Fans will remember the speedy sophomore from his pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2011 and an explosive performance in the Blue/Gold scrimmage this spring.
With Wood known for his “north/south” speed and Riddick defined as a “slasher,” Atkinson says he’s just as eager as everyone else to see what style he can bring to the table.
“I know as much as you guys know,” he said. “I’m ready to find out Saturday. I’m just excited for the opportunity and take it and run with it.”
Like Riddick, Atkinson is expected to contribute to the hybrid running back/slot receiver role. Unlike Riddick, he doesn’t have a couple years of experience at receiver under his belt.
Atkinson said he worked on his hands in the off-season, staying after practice to work with the JUGS pitching machine. Kelly notices the difference.
“George is making progress every day,” he said. “He was strictly the tailback. He was, in the I-formation and he was a guy that was getting the ball seven-and-a-half yards deep, and now he’s moving into different venues as a receiver. So he’s continued to evolve in that position.”
Atkinson saw limited action at tailback last year, put in mostly during garbage time against Air Force and Navy.
Even in those few carries, Atkinson said he felt lost and panicky.
“(Now), I’m not thinking, I’m reacting,” he said. “I’m seeing what the defense is doing and what we’re doing and running to what the defense gets us. I feel confident.”