Back in the starting lineup for the first time since last year as Z receiver Theo Riddick nurses a hamstring injury, the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Laie, Hawaii didn’t hesitate to make his mark. His first starting assignment since last year’s regular-season finale against USC produced seven catches for 73 yards in Notre Dame’s 45-21 victory over Maryland.
“This is my opportunity and I’m going to try to make the most of it,” said Toma, who scored his first career touchdown on Oct. 8 against Air Force. “Fortunately, I’ve been blessed enough to get a couple of opportunities and I’ve been able to make the most of them.
“I’m just going to approach it like I do every week. Even when I’m not starting, I practice hard and prepare the way that I always do.”
No one knows what Toma can do better than receivers coach Tony Alford, who didn’t bat an eye after Toma’s performance against Maryland.
“Does it shock me that he went in and played well? Absolutely not,” Alford said. “He’s competed every day. The kid’s come in and competed and tried to get better and worked at it and stayed the course.
“He’s done well. He’s made plays when he’s been asked to make plays, and he’s done it in practice, which has afforded us the opportunity to get him on the field and feel good about getting him in games.
“We have the next man in theory around here and Robby has taken to that. Robby’s on scholarship like everybody else and he’s done an exceptional job. This is what we expect him to do; to come in and perform at a high level.”
Alford quickly shoots down the notion that Toma is plying his trade with the Irish due to his high school teammate - five-star linebacker Manti Te’o. The Irish probably wouldn’t have made trip after trip to Hawaii to land a 5-foot-9 wide receiver. But they also wouldn’t have pursued Toma with Te’o if they didn’t think he could contribute.
“Everybody has his own accolades, and if Robby wasn’t a good football player, he wouldn’t be here,” Alford said. “He’s not here because of Manti Te’o; he’s here because of Robby Toma.
“Listen, Robby Toma went out and made the plays. Manti didn’t run down the field and make the catch. Robby did. My take on that is that he’s a young man who came here on his how merit, and he’s doing a nice job.”
Many small-in-stature offensive players become east-west runners with the football in their hands to avoid heavy contact and direct hits. Toma plays a north-south game as if he were a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder on a dig route.
“That actually comes from when I was young,” said Toma of his north-south tendencies. “I was a running back in Pop Warner. Uncle Brian (Te’o’s father) would tell me, ‘Make the most out of every opportunity and don’t let the first guy tackle you.’ So that’s something I take pride in.”
“We have a thing where we do drills we call tight turns,” Alford said. “We want to gain yards and he understands that. He finds seams and holes. He does a nice job of catching the ball and turning it north-south instantaneously. Robby has a knack for making plays. He’s got a knack for space.”
That knack and those skills rarely have been rewarded when Riddick’s been healthy. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has been reluctant to insert Toma in the lineup, even after he caught 14 passes for 187 yards (13.4-yard average) in a six-game span last season after Riddick was sidelined with a serious ankle injury.
Kelly’s comments this week were a breakthrough of sorts for Toma.
“Every chance that he’s gotten, he’s made the best of,” Kelly said. “But it’s like having Jonas (Gray) and Cierre (Wood). You’re not going to shut down one to get those reps (for the other). You’re going to try to balance them.
“(Even) if Theo’s full-go, 100 percent ready to go, I think Robby’s earned an opportunity to be on the field as well.”
That’s music to the ears of Toma, whose bond with Riddick has remained strong through the ups and downs of inconsistent playing time (for Toma) and injuries (for Riddick).
“When anyone gets hurt, it’s a part of the game, and Theo and I have been pretty much best friends, especially since this staff came and he got moved to receiver,” Toma said. “We work out together, we do everything together. Even when he was starting, I was in his ear and he and I would learn from each other. We continue to do that.”
Toma has no doubt that his smaller frame could handle a heavier workload if called upon.
“I feel like I could,” said Toma when asked if his body could withstand the rigors of a 13-game schedule. “Coach Kelly and the staff, along with Coach (Paul) Longo, have a really good plan of getting us healthy throughout the week and preparing us for the game. I’d love a chance to prove it.”
When Toma woke up the morning after his seven-catch, 73-yard performance against Maryland, he felt a strange sensation - pain. Sweet, wonderful pain.
“I haven’t played like that since high school,” Toma smiled. “It just felt good to finally get out there and contribute. It actually felt good to be sore on Sunday.”
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