|Dynamic athlete Theo Riddick looks to fill the hole left by suspended starting running back Cierre Wood. (US Presswire)|
On Sunday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced that two more players would be staying home rather than traveling with their teammates to Dublin to face Navy. Junior defensive end Justin Utupo and, more costly, starting running back Cierre Wood will join suspended linebacker Carlo Calabrese and quarterback Tommy Rees in South Bend.
For most teams, losing its returning starters at quarterback and running back would be a major blow, but not so much for the Irish. Behind Rees sat three able-bodied QBs, including the newly minted starter, Everett Golson. And behind Wood, too, are two dynamic backs that will not leave Notre Dame and Kelly wanting for running back production.
Sophomore George Atkinson III and senior Theo Riddick are in line to split carries Saturday morning against Navy, and both players possess the ability to make plays in space. Atkinson, a dangerous kick returner as a freshman, is also one of the fastest players on the team. He made his mark mainly returning kicks, taking two back for scores including one against Southern California that went for 96 yards. His running back production was scarce -- nine carries for 27 yards -- but he was low on the depth chart and had few chances.
Riddick, who is expected to start against Navy, was scarcely more effective as a runner as a junior in 2011, but he was certainly an asset as a receiver. Lining up all over the field, Riddick caught 38 balls for 436 yards and three scores. He was expected to show that versatility again in 2012.
“Being able to spread the offense is tremendous,” Riddick told the Chicago Sun-Times in April. “To have a person that can be a hybrid and play running back and be as versatile as possible is going to be very helpful in terms of moving the ball and making the defense not only focus on him but other guys and make it more difficult. So with that being said, it's all working to come together as a scheme.”
Recent events, of course, will force Riddick to do his damage from the backfield, almost exclusively. And that may be the major impact of the Wood suspension. Riddick and Atkinson can hardly be described as solid runners between the tackles, thus negating an entire facet of the Irish running game.
Overall, though, it's just two games, and Atkinson and Riddick fit nicely in Kelly's spread attack. It will be a tricky pair of games, however, with the opener in Dublin and then coming back a week later to face Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium.
Wood, an 1,102-yard rusher in 2011, wants nothing more to join a 2-0 team. Because if the Irish drop either of those games, it will likely be due to his absence.
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