Toma Time

Photo Courtesy US Presswire: Matt Cashore

Among the topcis discussed at last night's post-practice press conference: junior slot receiver Robby Toma's first start of the season, surgery for Braxston Cave, Manti Te'o's progress, and the development of freshman linebacker, Jarrett Grace.

Former head coach Charlie Weis noted his abilities as a true freshman, correcting observers that labeled him "The Punahou throw-in."

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar referred to him in August as, "A playmaking dude," and his teammates buried him under an avalanche of congratulatory helmet smacks after he registered the first touchdown of his career in Game Six vs. Air Force.

Yeah, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone related to or a fan of the Notre Dame program that isn't excited to see junior slot receiver Robby Toma at work in a starting role Saturday night.

Toma started twice last season, the most productive of the pair a four-catch, 64-yard effort vs. Tulsa during which the undersized target amassed 51 yards after the catch. He offered earlier this season that his approach to the game is simple: the first defender should never tackle him.

"I feel I'm pretty quick," Toma said. "I take pride in making the first guy miss. Growing up, ever since my Pop Warner coach Uncle Brian (Manti Te'o's father) told me, ‘You never let the first guy tackle you,' I've taken pride in making the first guy miss and getting as much yardage as I can in one opportunity."

His head coach showed no apprehension regarding Toma's ascent to a starting role in place of injured classmate, Theo Riddick (hamstring).

"We're very pleased with Robby; we know Robby," Brian Kelly said Wednesday. "He's a guy that can really help our football team. It's too bad Theo (Riddick) is out, but we don't feel like with Robby Toma, we're playing a No. 2 there. He can really help our offense, so we're in pretty good shape."

Toma's Teammate

Notre Dame's "other" Punahou High School product, Manti Te'o, continues to battle an ankle injury, but according to Kelly, his junior leader has progressed and been able to practice more than anticipated.

"We were cautious with Manti and he said, ‘Coach, I'm good to go,' Kelly said of Te'o. "He knows his limitations."

There's a fine line between making it through practice and being ready to play an entire football game. For Kelly, Te'o is a player he can trust to self-monitor his status. "We're well past toughness, you know? We're well past, ‘Hey, is he tough enough?' Kelly said of the All-America candidate. "But we're also at that point where he knows how essential he is to getting us lined up and getting the front lined up. So he's in that position where he wants to be out there for the communication, but he's smart enough to know that maybe I'm not going to get to this scrape position as fast as I normally would.

"So that's kind of where we are with Manti. He's being smart, but he wants to be in the fray, he wants to be out there communicating."

See you in the spring…kind of

Starting center Braxston Cave will go under the knife today, the procedure to repair a ligament torn from the bone of his foot.

"It's similar to an ACL in terms of its recovery (time)," Kelly said. "It's a little more tricky because of the biomechanics of the foot in terms of when you're putting hardware in there, now the foot is involved and those biomechanics.

"I've had two centers that have played for me that unfortunately had a similar injury. Now they both came back and they were fine, but it took some time," he offered. "Braxston will be back. Our guess is he's limited in the spring in terms of contact. But he'll be out there snapping, running tempo, doing all those things, and we expect him to fully recover."

Travel Plans

What do redshirt-freshman center Bruce Heggie, walk-on freshman linebacker Joe Schmidt, and the trio of freshmen Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and Jarrett Grace have in common?

Each has earned game day mention as a surprising member of the team's travel roster at some point this season. Kelly was asked what goes into the formation of a travel roster, one that includes a small sampling of players that are highly unlikely to see the field (freshman QB Everett Golson, included, of whom Kelly noted must travel to learn and become familiar with "Signaling, game-day (machinations), on the road, all those things. He needs to absorb all of that.").

"Those are head coaching decisions. In some instances, I may want to carry a guy and reward him for what he's done in demo squad," Kelly said. "He's done a great job, and I want to reward him and take him on the trip. Another might be here's a guy that may be in the two-deep or sniffing a starting position and I want him to get the sense and feel for what it's like to be on the road, and see it from that perspective. And then there are others that have some geographical significance in that we want to bring a guy because he's from that geographical area and we really like what he's done with the program.

"And then the final one is you're in an emergency back-up situation where we don't want to go down this road, we don't want to play you, but if you have to, you've got to be with us. So we look at all those."

Grace would fall into the latter – the Cincinnati product traveled last week to Wake Forest with Te'o hobbled.

"He's a good player, good football player," Kelly said of Grace. "Rangy, smart, great football intelligence. He's got to get stronger, but (has) natural linebacker instincts."

Asked if Kelly would anticipate Grace in the mix next year, he said, "I would anticipate that, yeah."

(Editor's Note: "In the mix" to the coaching staff means challenging for a two-deep role. You and I likely consider the same phrase to be a player on the verge of starting.)

Of relevance: injured 5th-year senior Mike Ragone has traveled with the team in every road game since suffering a season-ending knee injury at Michigan in Week Two.

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