Word Association: Part II

Junior wide receiver, Theo Riddick

The conclusion of our mid-summer word association column examines, among its many topics: a potential breakout star, a true defensive end rotation, and Notre Dame's "Play-in" matchup over Thanksgiving Weekend.

Click here for Part I

Triple ThreatTheo Riddick's role on the 2011 Irish.

The late 80s and early 90s saw two explosive Irish receivers dominate college football as three-way treats (WR, RB, Return) Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail rode the role under Lou Holtz's guidance to Heisman or national title honors. With the possible exception of *Golden Tate in 2009, Notre Dame has lacked a true three-way threat since Rocket exited campus in 1990 (Apologies to dual-threats such as Allen Rossum, David Givens, Julius Jones, Vontez Duff, and Tommy Zbikowski)

Though he's not in the rarified air of Rocket and Brown, Riddick is Notre Dame's likely "Wildcat" quarterback and one of the team's top two runners. He's a gifted open-field runner, and, for a stretch prior to his ankle injury in Week Seven last fall, was Notre Dame's No. 1 wide receiver, catching 33 passes for 344 yards and 3 TD over a four-game span. Riddick's best Irish season might be as a junior this fall, when defenses focus on All-America Michael Floyd on every snap.

His reported addition to the punt return squad could give a dormant return game new life.

(*Aside from one impressive evening in Pittsburgh, Tate favored the fair catch during his time as an Irish punt return threat.)

Invaluable – The team's most important backups: senior RB Jonas Gray; sophomore CB Lo Wood; freshman DE Aaron Lynch; and 5th-year senior LG Andrew Nuss.

Nuss is the only player of the quartet that might win a starting role – he's the line's "swing player" nonetheless, capable of filling in at 4-5 positions, including center. Gray must provide power and consistent production as the team's only veteran backup running back, while Wood will be highly visible – and a marked man – as the No. 3 cornerback. Lynch could help the Irish provide its best team pass rush since the 2002 season when Justin Tuck was a redshirt-freshman regular.

BookendsEthan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore: the senior defensive end tandem must pick up where it left off last November, then improve throughout the season for the Irish to reach the BCS.

True Rotation – Johnson and Lewis-Moore combined for 1,354 snaps at defensive end last fall. Backups Kona Schwenke and Emeka Nwankwo? A mere 102. Look for Schwenke, Lynch, and incoming freshman Stephon Tuitt to lighten the starting pair's load throughout 2011.

Top Tandem – Is there a more physical cornerback tandem in the nation than seniors Robert Blanton and Gary Gray? They'll dominate on the perimeter in zone coverage next fall – it's their ability to turn and run on occasion that will help decide if the Irish defense is a top 20 or top 10 unit…or better.

Drop-off – Last season's No. 3 cornerback was Blanton – he finished as Irish Eyes' seventh-best player (on the entire squad) for the season. Lo Wood won't finish that high as a true sophomore, but there can't be a major drop-off from No. 2 to No. 3, either.

Encore – That's all we can ask of "Mr. (nearly) Perfect" David Ruffer after the former walk-on drilled 18 of 19 field goal attempts between the pipes last fall.

Bermuda Triangle – Powerful, highly touted kickers have seen their share of struggles when they hit campus in South Bend; early enrollee Kyle Brindza appeared the real deal last spring, but many-a-high school star has found his collegiate kick-offs sail awry when the lights turned bright. Brindza's potential length and consistency on kick-offs could aid an already strong coverage unit.

Week Three – That's the drop-dead date for junior punter Ben Turk, because there's finally legitimate competition for his role. Turk's big, but inconsistent punting leg has caused angst for a pair of head and special teams coaches over the last two seasons. The Irish can't afford to give away yards vs. a schedule that features 10 potential bowl teams.

"Top Notch, Top Notch!" – Not just the most awkward compliment in comedy history, courtesy of Judge Smalls, but the team's coverage units last fall: save for one major 59-yard mistake vs. Tulsa, the punt coverage unit completely dominated, allowing just 18 yards over 13 games. The kick coverage unit ranked as a true team strength, finishing 17th nationally.

Pass Fits – Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's phrase for his linebackers' coverage responsibilities, as in "Carlo has to get slicked up on his ‘pass fits.'"

He'll shine in the running game, but Calabrese must become more consistent vs. the pass as a second-year starter.

Light Years – How far away the Irish punt and kick return teams must be removed from last year's pedestrian, or in the case of the punt return group, pathetic production level.

Jack of all trades – Junior linebacker Dan Fox, who began as a 4-3 OLB, stayed outside in the 3-4 last August, but moved inside during the 2010 season. He'll be the team's No. 3 inside linebacker this fall, a role graduated senior Brian Smith rode to four starts to conclude the 2010 season.

Fox's ability to provide rotation relief at multiple inside LB positions, while also serving as a stop gap option at Dog/Drop – will be key to steadying the team's unproven linebacker reserves entering camp.

Play-in game – No, not the former #65 vs. #64 NCAA Tournament pre-cursor, but a Week 12, 2011 matchup between the Irish and Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. The winner gets in, the loser joins the growing second class of college football: on the outside of the BCS looking in.

60 – Total points on the scoreboard in Notre Dame's highest-scoring contest of the season, Week Three vs. Michigan State.

30 – Total points on the scoreboard in Notre Dame's lowest-scoring contest of the season, Week Five at Purdue.

Upset Alert – Week Six's sandwich game in South Bend vs. Air Force…

Overlooked – Have you noticed little fans talk about the solid, second-year effort of 9-game returning starter Zeke Motta? Probably not…

Kid GlovesCierre Wood simply cannot take too much of a late-game pounding when the contest has been decided…

Straw that stirs the drink – Michael Floyd: 10-11 wins with; 8-5 (again) without…

Fan Favorite – Whoever doesn't start at quarterback…

Decisions, Decisions – One of four Irish quarterbacks will face a crossroads following 2011…

Pressure-packed – Senior Dayne Crist's opening moments and month, should he win the role. No Irish player has polarized the fan base more after a 4-win, 4-loss starting effort last fall.

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