Robby Toma knows he can be a bit annoying to his head football coach.
“In practice, they’ll be calling out certain personnel for running back and I’ll be in his ear like, ‘Call mine,’” said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior slot receiver. “He’ll just look at me and smile.”
Better to be an annoyance than a non-factor.
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“If I didn’t want the ball, that would be a problem,” Toma said.
The only “problem” Toma has ever created for Brian Kelly - other than the frequent insistence of his abilities - is the way he’s forced the Irish head coach/offensive play-caller to get him more involved.
Last week, in Notre Dame’s three-overtime victory over Pittsburgh, Toma caught a season-high six passes for 50 yards, which raised his season total to 20, a personal single-single high. He now has 56 receptions in his career.
“I guess even when I was growing up I was a little cocky, kind of a pushy guy,” Toma said. “Growing up, I always thought I was better and that I could go out and win no matter what the situation. I’ve always been confident.”
The word confidence doesn’t adequately capture Toma’s belief in himself. The Laie, Hawaii native and long-time teammate of Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te’o has never considered himself lacking or inferior to players much larger in stature. It’s what made Toma believe he not only was worthy of a Notre Dame scholarship, but immediate inclusion in Notre Dame’s receiver rotation.
Toma forced his way onto the field as a freshman in 2009 - Charlie Weis’ final season at Notre Dame - and caught three passes in three games, two of which came against this weekend’s opponent, Boston College.
Toma began pestering Kelly shortly thereafter to no avail, at least initially. Toma didn’t play in four of the first six games of his sophomore season, and failed to catch a pass in the two that he did participate in. He caught all 14 of his passes in 2010 in the last six regular-season games, averaging 13.4 yards per grab.
But by his junior season, Toma was again an afterthought for Kelly as Theo Riddick handled most of the snaps at Z receiver. Just like the previous two seasons, the irrepressible Toma came on strong at the end of the season, aided by Riddick’s absence due to injury. Toma caught 16 of his 19 passes in the final four regular-season games, including seven for 73 yards against Maryland (both career highs) and another five for 65 yards the following week against Boston College.
Now in the final games of his collegiate career, Toma has a greater understanding of Kelly’s dilemma.
“We have so many talented players that obviously you’re not going to get the ball as much as you want,” Toma said. “But eventually if you keep doing your job, you get rewarded.
“I would hate to be the coaches (and have to) decide who gets the ball in certain situations. But if you just do your job, eventually you’ll be rewarded. You just have to be patient and unselfish.”
Patience is a virtue that has always been difficult for Toma to master.
“I know I’m small, but I’ve never really viewed myself as the little guy,” Toma said. “I’ve always felt like although I’m smaller, I’m quicker so I try to focus on my strengths. But I’ve never really viewed myself as a little guy even though I’m small.”
As the Irish get deeper into the season, there’s nothing small about Toma’s contributions to the cause. November is Toma’s month to shine.