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April 5, 2012

He's Toma terrific!

There isn't anything that Robby Toma can't do.

He can catch a football against any defensive back in the country. He can play running back with the best of them if they simply line him up and hand him the football. Punt return? Put me in, coach.

Football is Toma's oyster. Haven't you heard? Brian Kelly has. Over and over and over again.

"Coach Kelly finally is figuring out that I can do other stuff," said the brash 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Laie, Hawaii. "I have more talents than just in the slot."

Confidence has never been a problem for Toma.

Toma's talent at the Z receiver position is far from legendary, but it is noteworthy, particularly for the hurdles he continues to overcome to keep getting back on the field.

After convincing Charlie Weis that he deserved to play as a freshman in 2009 - he caught three passes for 21 yards - Toma had difficulty convincing Kelly of his abilities and effectiveness. Through the first six games of his sophomore season, he caught no passes in the two games he played and failed to find the field in the four others.

Then starting Z receiver Theo Riddick suffered a significant ankle injury, and Toma caught 14 passes over the final six regular season games, averaging 13.4 yards per catch. And yet when the Sun Bowl against Miami rolled around, Riddick returned to the lineup and Toma once again failed to log any playing time.

Junior season, 2011, and more of the same. Nine regular-season games, three catches, 35 yards, but his first career score against Air Force. It pretty much looked like a repeat of his sophomore year until late in the season when he caught 12 passes for 138 yards in back-to-back games against Maryland and Boston College as Riddick returned to the sideline due to injury. Toma capped off his junior season with another four catches in the Champs Sports Bowl.

But it wasn't until Notre Dame's decision to move Riddick back to running back for the 2012 season that truly opened up Toma's opportunity to pursue a much-coveted starting role for the Irish. Now in his final year of eligibility, it's Toma in the slot and limited competition this spring after Riddick's return to running back and sophomore Matthias Farley's move to safety.

Toma won't have competition from a scholarship player at the Z until this summer when candidates such as Davonte Neal and KeiVarae Russell arrive on the scene.

"Any time you're an older guy and you're getting a lot of reps with the ones, it feels great to get the respect from your teammates and your staff," Toma said. "It means a lot to me. I'm just going out there every day to try to better myself and better my teammates.

"I do feel like a starter. If not a starter, a contributor to the team, not only to the offense, but getting the defense better. I still have a lot of doubters, so I'm just trying to play for my family, my friends, and myself, and just trying to represent them the best I can."

One of those doubters always has been Kelly, partly because of Toma's size, partly because Toma's incessant chirping sometimes gets under his skin. But Toma's productivity - not his bold proclamations about his abilities - has made Kelly as well as running backs/Z receivers coach Tony Alford acknowledge his versatility.

"When you talk to Robby, first of all, it's great to talk to Robby anytime," smiled Kelly. "But you're right, he thinks of himself as a 20-carry guy."

"He thinks he's pretty good at running back," laughed Alford. "We're teaching Robby Toma the run game so he knows it. Is there a big package to put him back there and run the inside zone? No, but he'd know how to do it."

When Alford commends Toma for his solid technique at running back, Toma responds by telling Alford, "I'm a natural." He may be small, but no one has ever accused Toma of being a shrinking violet.

"When I was younger, I played running back through my whole Pop Warner days," Toma said. " Our offense is so dynamic and we have so many lethal players that if we can learn every spot on the field, that can only help our team."

All joking and good-natured ribbing aside, Toma has worked his tail off to put himself in a position to succeed during his senior season. Few would have expected him to have 36 catches for 415 yards through his first three years.

"I don't feel like I'm fighting it every day," said Toma of the hard-earned respect that has come his way. "I mean, I'm still fighting every day, but I feel like the coaches know I can do some things out there and it feels a lot better. It gives me a lot more confidence.

"I always tell (Kelly) that he finally figured out my talents. Now he's starting to utilize them."

Now Toma thinks he's the next Walter Payton.

"Hey, nobody thought I could do it, so when I get out there, they're surprised," said Toma of his natural inclination to run the football. "RBU (Running Back University), that's what we call it here. Me, C (Cierre Wood) and Theo."

Nothing can quell the indomitable spirit of Robert Joseph Toma.


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