Former Notre Dame RB Theo Riddick has advice for C.J. Prosise

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Life, as C.J. Prosise knows it right now, is a whirlwind.

First career start at running back Saturday at Virginia, a 90-minute drive from his hometown of Petersburg, Va. Suddenly challenged with learning a new role and a new position somewhat on the fly.

After Tarean Folston’s season-ending knee injury against Texas, Prosise — a 6-foot-1, 220-pound receiver this time last year — has made a meteoric rise up the depth chart at a brand new position.

The eyes of the college football world will be watching the Notre Dame senior.

Any advice?

“Be you,” said former Notre Dame running back/turned receiver/turned running back Theo Riddick. “The coaches wouldn’t put you in a situation they wouldn’t think you can succeed at. Not everyone can make that transition from one position to another.

“Let the game come to you; be patient. And have fun. We all play better when we’re enjoying the game.”

Riddick, in his third year with the Detroit Lions, has been in Prosise’s cleats — sort of.

The 5-11, 200-pound Riddick came to Notre Dame from Manville, N.J., as a running back. His sophomore and junior seasons, Riddick was moved to receiver. As a senior, he was restored to the running back position where he flourished with more than 900 yards on the ground, leading the Irish to the national championship game.

Riddick, who still occasionally communicates with Prosise, knows the pressure and the work that goes into changing positions. His biggest adjustment was to receiver. The move back to running back was a relief.

“(Switching from running back to receiver) was a constant struggle,” said Riddick, a running back now with the Lions. “At receiver, you have to be so detail-oriented in terms of leverage points, getting in and out of your breaks, body language, your leverage on routes.

“Every day I had to remind myself to be conscientious of all those things. Obviously, I didn’t learn it overnight. I can remember vividly, coming into my senior year, feeling quite comfortable at receiver, or in the slot.”

So, of course, after all that work, Riddick was moved back to running back.

What made that move less dramatic was the fact that Riddick was a born running back. He probably learned to keep his pads low shortly after he took his first steps — well…maybe at least before he started shaving.

“A lot of people forget I had played running back my whole life,” Riddick said. “I didn’t feel there was any adjustment other than reading your keys, understanding the blocking.

“Those are my fundamentals. What C.J. has might be a little different. I know he’s talented enough to pull it off in the transition.”

Prosise, who carried the ball 20 times for 98 yards against Texas, has been challenged by head coach Brian Kelly to get a handle on his own fundamentals.

“The fundamentals really of the position — stance, pocket for taking handoffs, the right steps (need to be his focus),” said Kelly. “Really, why he's been able to move into the position that he is in is because of his physical ability, his maturity, and understanding the offense.

“But it's certainly a work in progress, as it related to the fundamentals. You're not seeing some of the things that I'm seeing fundamentally that need to continue to grow for him because they could end up hurting us down the road if we don't get better at them. And he knows that, too.

“It's the work that we have to do every day in practice on the fundamentals of the position that are really centered to his development.”

While trying to get a handle on all the fundamentals of the position and the nuances that make for an effective back, fun may be low on the priority list.

“(Fundamentals) are like running my stomach to the ball; arm placement,” Prosise said. “It’s something I’m still getting used to. I’m still pretty new to the position. I have to pick it up quick.”

That also factors in consistently showing a lower pad level. Running as high as he did against the Longhorns makes for a pretty big target.

“Every time I get the ball I want to stay a little bit lower; pick up my knees, keep my head up and get my pads lower,” Prosise said. “It’s something I’ve gotten better at this week.”

Riddick sees those simple basics of the position that aren’t yet committed to memory as a concern.

“C.J. was primarily an athlete (at different positions) in high school,” Riddick said. “You learn (about keeping your pads low) in pee-wee, and as you get older, so you don’t take as many punishing hits.

“For it to be on your mind constantly, it can affect him. You’re not moving as fast as you could. When you’re not moving that fast, you’re going to take a lot more hits.

“It’s going to be a difficult transition for him, but I definitely see him making it. I’m sure the coaches are focused on it, so it will happen sooner than later.”

In other words, taking time to think can get a running back in trouble.

Having a feel for the big picture is as critical at running back as any other position on the field. Responsibilities go beyond just carrying out an assignment.

“You not only have to know your job, you have to know eeevvvvverrrryone’s job,” Riddick said. “You’re kind of a semi-quarterback.

“Whatever a quarterback is learning in a week, you have to learn. You have to know the blocking scheme. Who’s blocking who. Not every play is going to be clean. Sometimes the plays aren’t going to happen like they’re drawn up on paper.

“Sometimes, there will be a blitz. You have to pick up that guy even though it might not be your responsibility. It’s your job to make everything clean.

“Being a receiver, all I had to know was my route and the coverage. It doesn’t really matter who was blitzing or what was happening in the backfield.”

“I’m getting used to (the cerebral side of the position) now that I’ve seen it,” Prosise said. “If somebody’s not yours (on a blitz), he might still technically be yours. You still have to get him.

“It’s something that was very difficult to pick up, but I’m starting to feel better about it now.”

He will likely get plenty of opportunities to see pressure Saturday. Cavaliers defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta loves to dial up the heat.

“You have to know what’s going on inside the line, especially when (the defense) is blitzing,” Prosise said. “UVa blitzes a lot. You’ve gotta know where the blitzes are coming from.”

Prosise was involved in a couple runs that looked more like rugby than football. What’s even more interesting, he loved the physical nature of those plays.

“(The rugby scrums) are so much fun,” Prosise said. “You hear people talking. You get going. You get to see the (offensive) line run in there and hitting. There’s nothing better in football to see.

“The crowd gets going. It’s a fun place for me, I know that.”

“Playing receiver, I really missed the physicality; not being hit every play,” Riddick said. “That makes me hone in even more during the game.

“(The physicality) wasn’t an adjustment for me. At running back, when you’re carrying the load, you have to understand the fine line between being hurt and being injured. There are going to be games when you’re not going to feel the greatest, but you have to go out there and perform as if you are.

“I was always in tune with (the difference). I’ve always been a smaller guy. It’s always motivated me to get healthy during the week, so I could play better.”

Knowing Prosise as well as he does, Riddick has no question that the transition will be seamless.

“A guy like C.J. Prosise has to understand that when you move to that position, (the bumps and bruises) come with it,” Riddick said. “We’ve always had that philosophy, ‘Next man in.’ The speed of the game is going to be a transition. He’ll be going through it, and I’m sure he’ll make it quicker than most people think.”

As soon as the whirlwind slows down.

Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) moves against New York Jets cornerback Marcus Williams (20) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)