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November 24, 2010

Wood grows up for Irish

To say Cierre Wood came to Notre Dame self-confident would be a vast understatement.

A Rivals100 prospect chose Notre Dame over an elite list of scholarship offers and expected to impact the depth chart at running back as soon as he strapped the pads on in South Bend.

Wood carried himself with such confidence that he butted heads with Manti Te'o.

"It's just like the fact that I came in there, I was highly recruited, I just didn't care," Wood said. "I didn't even know who he was. But the fact that he was staring at me made me mad. So I'm like, 'Alright, I'm gonna look at you too.' We didn't even really talk at first."

That relationship would be repaired over a beanbag game at the home of former special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who was instrumental in recruiting both players under the Charlie Weis regime.

As the two talked they found many things in common. But neither knew how Te'o would help Wood's development into a starting running back.

Wood expected to be an impact freshman for the Irish but it didn't happen. Last season Theo Riddick was the freshman running back that captivated fans and coaches while Wood red-shirted and some debated whether he should make a permanent move to safety.

Rather than sulk, Wood searched for answers.

"I just (told) myself I know I belong out there," Wood said. "There's no doubt about it. But if I wasn't out there obviously there was a reason why I wasn't out there. I know I had the talent to be out there. I know I was good enough to be out there. So I just had to take a deeper look and be like, 'What's the fundamentals? What am I doing wrong?'"

When Brian Kelly arrived he saw his running back of the future in Wood, which is part of the reason he moved Riddick to slot receiver. Not only would it help maximize Riddick's talent, it would clear space on the depth chart for Wood in the backfield.

But even with Riddick out of the way it left Armando Allen, Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes as experienced options while Wood had much to learn, most notably in areas like pass protection and ball security.

There was no doubt Wood knew how to run as he shot up the depth chart to be Allen's backup during fall camp. Once he hit the field, however, it became clear picking up a blitz was still a problem.

"The first couple of games I was still nervous and real jumpy in there," Wood said. "I would read my reads wrong sometimes. It was basically I was out there guessing sometimes. I knew they were coming in this vicinity, I just didn't know who was coming at the time."

That's when Wood turned to an old foe that also happens to be one of the best linebackers in the country.

If improving his pass protection would mean more playing time Wood wanted to get it fixed and fast. So, one day he approached Te'o about putting in extra work. Te'o took a cerebral approach as they did one-on-one battle.

"I did some finesse moves," Te'o said, "some speed moves, then I hit him with the bull rush. I just tried to give him different looks because as a running back you can't see what the guy is gonna do. You can't be in his head. But I told him there are certain keys when a linebacker rushes or when somebody rushes, there are certain keys that give away his move.

"A rusher only has two moves: He has his initial move and he has his counter move. If you block his initial move, get ready for the counter."

Progress in pass protection, ball security, learning the offense and all the other demands on a running back in Kelly's offense has been steady but not always easy.

Before Wood began his ascent to the starting job there were plenty of low moments where he drew the ire of his head coach, even on national television against Boston College after some mental errors that Wood immediately owned up to.

The private moments at practice were even worse.

"(Kelly) kept saying my number," Wood said. "It was irritating at first because I kept messing up. And 20, he would just scream. He would be right behind me and just scream. I'd be like, 'I'm right here, you know?' But at the same time it's like, well, if I do what I've gotta do then I won't have to hear him screaming at me. I basically tried to eliminate all my problems. That way he doesn't have anything to say."

Wood's improvement became more important after Allen went down with a hip injury that ended his Notre Dame career. Kelly thrust the sophomore into the starting role and he started to flourish.

Against Tulsa Wood carried the football 16 times for 58 yards. In the upset win against Utah he toted it 19 times for 71 yards. Then against Army at Yankee Stadium he had 14 carries for 88 yards, the best game of his young career.

Needless to say the head coach has noticed the steady growth and has a beat on why it's taken place.

"It's been maturity," Kelly said. "Maturing has been that ingredient for him. He's growing up as a young man, and that's why I think he's beginning to have the success that he thought he would."

After the last few weeks Wood has that old swagger back, and it couldn't come at a better time as he heads home to Southern California for a rivalry match against USC as the starting running back for Notre Dame.

Wood will have a slew of family and friends in the stands and more to prove.

"It's really rewarding," Wood said. "I came up here expecting big things like that. Unfortunately things didn't fall into place like I wanted them to but I kept at it, kept working ... And going back home, in front of the home crowd, just (to) show them everything I've got. Show them how I've gotten much better at everything. It should be exciting and fun."







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