ORLANDO, Fla. - When Cierre Wood was a freshman in 2009, Charlie Weis and his staff decided it would be best to give Theo Riddick the opportunity to play at running back behind Armando Allen.
When Wood finally got his chance to play in 2010 behind Allen, it sometimes appeared as if he had to relearn the proper steps every time he carried the football, particularly the first half of the season.
The Notre Dame football player who wears No. 20 in 2011 is a vastly superior player to the one who arrived on campus two years ago from Oxnard, Calif., and a significantly better running back than the one who made his debut in ’10.
“I’m a completely different back,” acknowledged Wood Monday outside the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium as the Irish continued preparations for Florida State in Thursday’s Champs Sports Bowl.
“I see everything better and the game is a lot slower for me. Everything is coming real easy for me. There are still things I want to work on obviously, but for the most part, I’ve made a great jump from last year to this year.”
In fact, a greater jump than most running backs normally make. When Wood arrived from Santa Clara High School, he was very much an unfinished product. That alone displays how talented of an athlete Wood is when you consider he rushed for 4,244 yards and 54 touchdowns during his final two years on the prep level.
Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton inherited a raw talent during the spring of 2010. Hinton talked about the need for Wood to consistently pound it up between the tackles, and then to show the vision on the second level that would allow six-yard runs to become 16-yard runs. None of that seemed to come naturally to Wood.
Then Allen suffered a season-ending injury that finally put him on the shelf for good with five games remaining in 2010. Wood rushed for 387 yards on 76 carries (5.09-yard average) over those final five games. Including his start earlier in the season against Western Michigan when Allen was banged up, Wood rushed for 481 yards on 87 carries (5.5-yard average) in his six starts.
But Wood still was just scratching the surface. Although his yards per carry remains about the same (5.2) this season, he is a substantially better, more consistent, more instinctive runner with 1,042 yards rushing on 199 carries heading into the Champs Sports Bowl.
Wood’s greatest lesson this year came in the USC game when he was held to five yards on five carries, due in part to his emotional state of mind playing against the Trojans.
“Not everything is always going to appear right away,” said Allen when asked to assess how he benefited from his sub-par performance against the Trojans.
“I’m always quick to want to make a play, so sometimes I get ahead of myself. I try to take more than they give me, and it ends up being a negative. I just want to be as patient as possible.”
Wood will be without his tag-team partner - Jonas Gray - when the Irish lace them up Thursday night against Florida State. But he’s back running with an old stable mate - Theo Riddick - at least for the bowl game.
“It’s fun back there…never a dull moment,” said Wood, who formed a bond with Riddick when they arrived together in 2009. “My roommate…we’re just having fun out there.
“It’s second nature to him. He still has some things that he’s lacking because he was at receiver. But he picked it up real fast. It’s like he’s a regular running back now.”
Meanwhile, Wood continues to hone his craft. If he makes the progress over the next year or two that he’s made in the last two, he’ll be the big-time back that he has always envisioned himself being.
“You always have to study your opponent,” said Wood, a statement he likely wouldn’t have made just two years ago. “You can’t go into a game blind. You have to know what your opponent does and what their strengths and weaknesses are in order to be successful.”
Wise words from one of the most improved players in the program.