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December 12, 2012

Growing up in South Bend

You might say that when Robby Toma arrived at Notre Dame in the summer of 2009, he wanted it all.

Although he admired, respected and loved his traveling mate from the Hawaiian Islands - linebacker Manti Te'o - he wanted to make his own mark, his own fame, his own accolades.

Toma, the 5-foot-9 receiver, wanted his own scrapbook.

"I remember that first headline: 'Toma Talks Te'o,'" said Toma, his voice trailing off.

Toma has come a long way since then, not that his competitive nature ever waned. But as the years passed and his role increased - although never quite as dramatically as he always hoped - Toma learned to that patience and conceding reps or catches to a teammate was a good thing, the right thing to do.

"I started out early in my career and I didn't really play much, and then luckily I was able to start opening some eyes and get some playing time," said Toma, whose reception total increased from three as a freshman to 14 as a sophomore to 19 as a junior and now 24 as a senior as he heads into his final game in a Notre Dame uniform. "But this year wasn't hard because I've been getting a lot of playing time, although I haven't gotten that many balls.

"You see a guy like Tyler Eifert come back instead of going to the NFL. He doesn't get half as many balls as he's used to getting, and yet he still blocked his butt off every game. Just having a leader like that makes it easy on the other guys. It's humbling."

Toma's inclusion in the passing game has been sporadic. He caught four passes for 33 yards - including a critical 21-yarder in the game-winning drive - in Week Two against Purdue, and then added another five catches for 58 yards in the road victory over Michigan State in Week Three. But over the next four games, he caught just three passes for 27 yards.

Everett Golson began to find Toma more often over the final five regular-season games. In fact, half of his 24 receptions on the season came over those last five weeks, including a six-catch, 50-yard effort against Pittsburgh.

For the ever-ready Toma - who spent much of the last three years in Brian Kelly's ear, pleading for an opportunity to touch the football more - it's been a fantasy ride in 2012.

"We had a couple close games at the beginning of the year," Toma said. "We knew we were going to have to battle all year, but I don't think anybody could have imagined being 12-0, especially after we had a couple tough seasons. We knew we were good, but we didn't know we could be this good. It's just a testament to how hard the guys worked, and how coach prepared us every week."

There were lessons learned by Toma over the last four seasons, particularly 2012 -- the art of patience, conceding to others, and that you never quite have it all figured out. In the end, the coaches know best.

"Credit to all the coaches," Toma said. "After a win, we'd come back Monday and correct the film. Monday is the day everybody dreads because you know you'll get a little pat on the back for the good things that you did. But if there's a mistake, they really pick you apart. Humbling us has been the biggest thing and just keeping us focused for the next week."

Toma has learned how to be 1/11th of the offense, and an integral part at that.

"It's definitely surreal," said Toma of Notre Dame's undefeated season and chance to take on Alabama in the Jan. 7 BCS National Title game. "Just our team in general, we never get too high, we never get too low and it shows on the field and in the way we prepare.

"That's what Coach Kelly and the coaches preached. We followed the plan, and look where we are."


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