At this time last March, "P-Rich" was finishing the Colorado football team's off-season conditioning program, and to paraphrase anyone - coaches, teammates, strength and conditioning staffers - who routinely watched him work, the sinewy kid from California "killed it."
Intensely driven to rehab a knee injury that sabotaged his 2011 season, Richardson raced through everything put in front of him and more. He told strength and conditioning assistant Steve Englehart: "'Coach, I feel like I'm a monster. This is what I was made to do.'"
Monster or not, he still had a man's frailties, and three days before the end of last spring's work Richardson reinjured the knee that had shortened his previous season. This time, the injury was more serious. In a non-contact special teams drill, he suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and also had cartilage damage.
After undergoing surgery a week later, rehabbing like the "monster" he felt he had become and believing he might be available for the opening of CU's 2012 Pac-12 Conference schedule, a collaborative decision among Richardson, his parents and the former coaching staff shelved him for the Buffaloes' entire woeful fall (1-11).
His waiting game grew longer, his patience was taxed. And if you think Richardson kept track of how long it's been, you would be correct. "I've counted the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks," a humbled and focused Richardson told me the other day. "It'll be 17 months before I play my next game. That's the most games I've watched in my whole life. It seems like a very, very long time."
That's only because it has been. Much has happened in CU football since "P-Rich" ran his last Saturday route and caught his last pass. When spring ball opens Thursday, he will be playing for his third head coach (Mike MacIntyre) and third position coach (Troy Walters). Richardson is listed as probable for spring participation, although he believes his status could be upgraded. He says he's functioning at "99 percent."
But this coaching staff, like its predecessors, doesn't want to gamble with "P-Rich." If he regains his early 2011 form - which he expects to surpass - he will be a proven playmaker at a position that should be much improved in MacIntyre's revamped offense.
Richardson missed four games in 2011, but finished with 39 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns. He set a single-game school record for receiving yards (284) and tied the single-game reception mark (11) in Game 2 against California. He has six career plays that have gone for over 50 yards, all receptions and five of them for TDs.
But as Richardson concedes, those are old numbers. He's ready to begin working toward a new set, but most of all he's simply eager "for the competition," he said. "The coaches have emphasized that everyone is starting off with a clean slate; there's no depth chart. Guys can earn a first spot, a second spot, a third spot.
"I feel like the level of competition is going to be high and the people who have put in the extra work this off-season and have challenged themselves are going to stand out this spring. We've had a handful of guys who have been putting in the extra work, and I know for sure they've been out there with me. I can't wait to see them excel this spring when they finally get the opportunities they didn't get in the past."
Coming out of a different winter conditioning program, Richardson believes the Buffs were more mentally challenged this off-season than last. "The demand is still high and requires hard work and a high-level work ethic," he said. "We were put through different things to prepare us for how we're going to practice. By each position, your workout is a little different. You got to be able to think on what you've got to do then execute . . . once you get tired, that's when the physical and mental aspects pick up. It's mind over matter; you have to work through being tired."
Richardson said MacIntyre and his staff "for the most part" have been embraced by the returning players. "I've been here through three coaches and I feel there's some type of resilience that has to go on in rebuilding when you're going to play for someone who didn't recruit you. There's always a little of that, there's always a little of guys being scared, not being sure. But I think as a team we've grown to accept these coaches and they've grown to accept us. We've been working together. In my group, we've embraced our new coach and our head coach. We're anxious to get after it with each other this spring."
In addition to Richardson, receivers returning who saw extensive playing time last season are juniors Tyler McCulloch and Keenan Canty, sophomores Nelson Spruce and Gerald Thomas. Among that foursome, Spruce's 44 receptions for 446 yards and three TDs were team highs. And from what he's seen in winter work, Richardson expects January enrollee Jeff Thomas, a 2012 signee, to quickly become a presence at the position. Thomas, 6-3 and 195 pounds, was doing that last August before he went home (Dallas) for personal reasons and delayed his enrollment.
I asked Richardson if he would be surprised if CU is picked to finish last in the Pac-12 this fall. He answered, "No . . . and if there was a spot worse than last I figure we'd get that. You never know about the Pac-12. There were a couple of teams in the Pac-12 that people thought would compete for the national championship last year.
"Teams lost games they thought they should have won . . . teams won games they maybe shouldn't have. With us, we have everything to gain. We have less pressure on us to go out and compete than some teams that think they have to live up to expectations. There's not much expectation (outside) if you're picked to finish last in your conference."
But Richardson says his expectations and those of his teammates aren't aligned with outsiders' or anyone's who will cast a preseason vote on the order of the Pac-12 finish.
"I think we're going to be more than ready to compete this fall," he said. "I think we're going to do more than compete; we're going to win games. I expect nothing less than a bowl game this year. I'm sure we'll be above .500 - and that's just how confident I am in my group and my offense. I think we're going to be strong.
"I'm not with the defense, but the attitude and energy our defensive coaches have brought in, I can't wait to go against those guys this spring. I know ultimately we're working to get each other better. I'm more than confident we're going to turn a lot of heads, close a lot of mouths and some jaws are going to drop at the same time. And I'm going to be happy to be a part of it."
That's easy enough to say in early March, especially coming from a guy who didn't go through the beat-downs in 2012. But maybe that's why Richardson believes it. "I feel like it's true," he said. "I'm not saying it because I'm an older guy. I'm not saying it because I'm going to be here or what I think I can bring to the table.
"I'm saying it because I'm in the locker room with these guys, the weight room with these guys . . . I have that much confidence, that much faith in our team and coaches and our community."
Not being a part of the horrific 2012 season, not being able to do contribute something when everything was falling apart impacted Richardson. In one way, he said, "It just built some expectations for next season . . . I was able to watch and experience the bad. I had to grow up and mature. I know I'm going to have a better season this year than I would have had last year."
Richardson, who turns 21 on the day of CU's spring game (Saturday, April 13), stands 6-1 and said last spring he weighed 177 pounds. He says he has "put on a little weight," but grinned and graciously declined to offer his poundage. He also says he is "a lot stronger and faster" and that he further motivated himself by watching high school friends such as Robert Woods (Southern California receiver) compete in the NFL Combine.
"That added a little fuel to my fire," Richardson said. "I congratulated all those guys, especially Robert. He said the combine wasn't as hard as he thought it would be and that I would 'kill it' and he couldn't wait to see me perform. That let me know I'm where I'm supposed to be right now. Guys like him are where they are now because they're blessed to have that opportunity.
"I'm blessed because I'm able to come back another year for a reason. You go home and see these guys and you've got to have something to talk about. I don't want to be talking about another losing season next December."