Doug Rippy's roommate was among those who talked the Colorado linebacker through dark times last fall when a knee injury prematurely ended Rippy's junior season and placed him in a spectator's role this spring.
Late Monday night, it was Rippy's turn to begin talking his roomie and close friend through the same sort of turbulence and grief. That afternoon's practice saw junior receiver Paul Richardson - CU's top returning playmaker - leave the field on a motorized cart with an injury that later would be diagnosed as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and cartilage damage.
If Buffaloes coach Jon Embree feels Lady Luck jilted him so close to the end of spring drills, here's why: During a spring in which Embree and his staff already were injury conscious because of an abnormally low number of available players, Richardson's injury came on the third-to-last day of practice on the third-to-last play before a walk-through in the next period. And Richardson already was on a non-participation list for Saturday's spring game (5 p.m., Folsom Field) to ensure he would go into August camp whole and healthy.
So much for planning . . . but until Richardson's left knee gave way, severe injuries hadn't piled up. Sophomore quarterback Nick Hirschman broke a bone in his foot before spring drills started, but he'll return for August camp. Junior defensive back Parker Orms suffered an early hamstring injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the spring, but he's expected back this summer. Then came Richardson . . .
"There's a handful of guys that run what I call a 'pitch count' throughout spring," Embree said. "We've been fortunate throughout spring and a lot of those guys aren't going to play in the spring game . . . in the spring you want to get some key guys better, evaluate people and come out of it healthy. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do the last."
Rippy, who was watching Monday, could feel Richardson's pain then and later that night. "I told him after he gets started with rehab and prehab he'll be fine, but the day after surgery (it will come when the swelling subsides) he'll feel like crap," Rippy said. "He'll make it through; he's a strong person and has a good spirit about him. He'll be all right."
Now, the Buffs must discover how to be all right without him in 2012. Embree said there might be an outside chance that "P-Rich" "could possibly be back" before season's end "if everything's perfect . . . but it would have to be a unique set of circumstances." Very unique; since he played as a true freshman in 2010 and a sophomore in 2011, Richardson has a redshirt season available for 2012.
So CU will finish its final two spring practices - Thursday and Saturday - and point toward August camp and its opener against Colorado State knowing Richardson won't be available. Richardson hurt the same knee last fall, resulting in his absence from four games and reducing his role to little more than a decoy for much of the rest of the season.
Nonetheless, his 39 receptions in nine games for 555 yards and five touchdowns placed him third on the team in receiving. Of that total, however, 11 of the receptions and 284 of the yards came on one record-setting afternoon vs. California in Game 2.
The knee injury reduced Richardson's effectiveness for the latter part of the year, but he had rededicated himself after returning from Christmas break and had reestablished his role as a team leader. In an interview before spring practice began, he said he wanted his coaches and teammates to know he was "100 percent here, I'm all in; there are no question marks and it's going to show. I don't want to be seen in a dark light; I want to be seen in a bright light."
Embree and Malcolm Blacken, CU's director of speed, strength and conditioning, couldn't see him in any other way. Richardson blew away his competition during Coaches' Week, telling staffers, "I feel like I'm a monster; this is what I was made to do. I know how hungry I am and where I want to be in life; it all determines my work ethic. I'm doing it every day with a smile on my face."
Replacing Richardson won't be easy. Embree even indicated it was impossible: "You don't replace him. What we have to do is find out what other people can do and ask them to do those things. Then find a way to as effective as you can be and continue to move the ball. You've got to be creative. There's a lot of different things you have to do. The great thing about football it is a team game at the end of the day. So other people will have to pick up the slack. That's what we'll do."
Asking that of one player would be unfair. Rippy said his roommate was the hardest player on the roster to tackle. Richardson's ability to change directions and speed upon catching the ball made him more elusive than any other offensive player last season - including tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart.
"That's a big role to fill because 'P-Rich' is just a special, special player," sophomore receiver Tyler McCulloch said. "It doesn't necessarily create pressure but there's just a lot more urgency to have everyone step up. Everyone is going to want to step up individually, but as a unit, as a whole, we all need to step up."
Added redshirt freshman receiver Nelson Spruce: "It's going to be a collective thing. We all have different specialties and are different receivers. I think we've been coming together; as long as we continue we should be able to keep producing."
Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy has three freshmen arriving this summer, each having been promised scrutiny that now rises several levels due to Richardson's injury. Kennedy used then-redshirt freshman Keenan Canty as Richardson's replacement last season, but said Tuesday with his current group this time around, "It's all up in the air . . . there's no clear guy yet that I've decided or coach Embree has decided is going to step into that position. We've got to find the next-best guy, whether it's one of those freshmen . . . those guys have to come in, we have to see what they can do and we'll make that decision in the fall."
Jeffery Thomas (Dallas), Peyton Williams (Southlake, Texas) and Gerald Thomas (New Orleans) will be given ample opportunity to impress, and as Embree has told the receivers currently on his roster, "The tie goes to the youth. So you'd better win it."
Rippy and Embree said Richardson's focus already has shifted to school work and increased work in the weight room. Said Embree: "We talked about a plan we'll put together from a weight room perspective and an academic perspective, just so when he does come back he's ready to go and when he hits his fifth year he's ready to graduate. He's upbeat, in pretty good spirits, but he'll be up and down. It's a natural process to go through that."
Kennedy, who began coaching Texas' receivers in 2004 when Jordan Shipley suffered a season-ending knee injury, found Richardson's mood on Tuesday "pretty good," attributing it to a "maturity level that's beyond what it was last year. Hopefully, he can come out of this thing better on the other end."
The Buffs hope they can, too.