Robby Toma spent the past three years fighting for this moment. Just don’t tell the senior slot receiver that he’s finally earned a starting job.
Toma built his Notre Dame career on being told he wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t fast enough and wasn’t athletic enough to get on the field. By the end of last season he’d proven all of that false, finally convincing the Irish coaching staff that it had a legitimate slot receiver, which let Theo Riddick return to running back.
None of that should be lost of Toma entering the season. Yet all of it is.
“To be honest, I still think that I’m not a starter because once I start to get too comfortable, that’s when other guys will catch up to me or even surpass me,” Toma said. “We’ll find out come Navy.”
Actually, everybody around the Notre Dame football program already knows. Toma might not have the elite athleticism of freshman Davonte Neal or the explosion of sophomore DaVaris Daniels, but few players delivered more consistently when asked last season.
When Riddick went down with a hamstring last November, Toma produced 16 catches for 172 yards over the next four games. He was Notre Dame’s second-leading wide receiver in three of those, trailing Michael Floyd each time.
The biggest boost came in the Champs Sports Bowl when the coaching staff could have stuck Riddick back in the slot with a month to prepare. Instead, he stayed at running back.
It was a contrast to the season prior when Riddick also went down with a late-season injury. When he returned, Toma went back to the bench. When Notre Dame blew out Miami in the Sun Bowl, Toma didn’t touch the field.
“I just felt that the work on the field was starting to pay off,” Toma said. “It definitely helps when other people believe in you, but if I get too comfortable that can only do me wrong because I want to be that guy who’s always working, trying the better myself.”
Even if he won’t admit it, Toma could be Notre Dame’s most confident player heading into this season. He roomed with Neal during training camp, trying to coach up a freshman who’s ultimately gunning for his job.
“If you’re confident in your own abilities, you don’t have to worry about what someone else is doing,” said running backs and slot receivers coach Tony Alford. “I’ll help you because it doesn’t matter to me. That’s going to help us win.
“He’s been great for Davonte. He’s been a great mentor thus far for him and will continue to be. Robby Toma is going to make a lot of plays for us.”
Told that Toma didn’t want to cast himself as a starter heading into the season and acted more like a player scratching at the depth chart door rather than one who’s already been let into the lineup, Alford laughed. That attitude might be surprising to those who don’t know Toma, but it’s predictable to those who do.
“That’s what gets him going,” Alford said. “Every player ? has figure out what makes them tick and what’s their motivating forces and factors and Robby is going to continue to play the little guy card. The little Napoleon if you will.
“If that’s what gets him going, great, because that’s great. This staff has a lot of faith in him. He’s a guy as his coach that I have an incredible amount of faith and respect in what he does every day and what he brings to the table as far as his work ethic. He’s diligent, he comes to work every day, he’s diligent about his business.
“He’s a consummate professional when it comes to playing ball.”
And come this season, Toma will play plenty of ball.