In the Buffaloes’ first two games, Wood and “P-Rich” have teamed for 21 completions worth 417 yards and four touchdowns. Those stats make Richardson the nation’s No. 1 receiver in yards per game (208.5), No. 2 in receptions per game (10.5), and No. 3 in total receiving yards (417).
But nestled just behind Richardson on CU’s stat sheet is the remarkably consistent Spruce, who finished 2012 as the Buffs’ leading receiver with 44 catches for 446 yards (three TDs). Already this season Spruce has 12 receptions for 161 yards and a score, and at that pace for 10 more games – provided the Fresno State washout is replaced – Spruce would eclipse his 2012 work.
If he doesn’t finish as the Buffs’ 2013 reception leader, well, no worries as long as the W’s outnumber the L’s and the program continues to make the progress it exhibited over the season’s first two weeks. Of course, the fleet Richardson also factors into that conversation, offering defenses a fleeting look that CU opponents didn’t get last fall.
“P-Rich” is a blur, a burner who can outrun most of the corners he faces and run under most of Wood’s passes. He’s the guy defenses identify first when the Buffs line up, but he’s moved around enough by offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren and receivers coach Troy Walters to pose major headaches for defensive coordinators.
And while that doesn’t remove all the coverage pressure from Spruce and CU’s other receivers, it can undoubtedly reduce it.
“Richardson makes the big plays, draws attention from the defense so that frees up guys like me and D.D. (Goodson) and Ty (McCulloch) to kind of do our thing,” Spruce said. “He gets double covered and when he’s not, the defense still is usually cheating a little bit toward his side. That tilts the field for us.”
Richardson said CU’s first two opponents – Colorado State, Central Arkansas – “played the safety over the top a lot with me. And even when they play me ‘man,’ they’re keeping the safety over the top.”
And that usually puts Spruce in one-on-one coverage, which given his route-running ability offers him the advantage. Said Richardson: “He’s really good with his routes and he catches the ball . . . it gives him an opportunity to show his skills. He’s making plays for us.”
Spruce, a third-year sophomore, is making his mark with consistency and durability. He won last spring’s Iron Buffalo Award at his position for his work in the weight room and in conditioning. In August, he further impressed Walters by never missing a practice in preseason camp.
“That’s how he’s been day in and day out,” Walters said. “There were no ups and downs; every day he came out with great energy and effort. He ran great routes and caught the ball. He did everything well. I told him if he practiced like that he would be rewarded in the game – and he’s definitely been rewarded.”
Pretty sure that Richardson’s return would command a defense’s attention, Walters issued a challenge to Spruce and the other wideouts, virtually assuring them that “they’re going to have the opportunity to make plays. We have a game plan going into every game; if they want to double ‘P-Rich’ then other guys are going to have to step up and make plays.”
That’s what Spruce has done. Richardson’s top receiving game has been 11 catches for 209 yards against UCA while Spruce had eight catches for 99 yards against CSU. With Richardson completing his knee rehab last fall, Spruce submitted two games with eight receptions (8-103 yards vs. Washington State, 8-64 vs. CSU) before catching a career-high 10 balls (98 yards) against Utah.
But in becoming only the third freshman to lead the Buffs in single-season receptions, Spruce hit that milestone despite a case of first-year hesitancy. “I think I was thinking more about the speed of the game,” he said. “Coming out this year, having that year of experience under my belt, I think I’ve played faster, less hesitant.”
Of course, it also helps being in an offense that favors the pass as much as this one. “I like it,” Spruce said. And what’s not to like for a receiver? The Buffs are averaging 41 pass attempts (28 completions) and 370.5 passing yards a game. “We’ve been throwing the ball a bunch,” Spruce added.
Spruce might not have Richardson’s blinding speed, but he’s by no means a slug. “If a DB wants to sit on him, he can run by him,” Walters said. “We work on the ‘burst’ technique, where you give the defender the illusion that you’re going to go deep . . . so I haven’t seen too many defenders just sit on him. They respect his speed.”
Also, Richardson and Spruce are two of Walters’ best “hands-on” guys. Both rarely catch the ball against their bodies, preferring to snag it with their hands. Plus, said Walters, Spruce couples good vision with his able hands: “He watches the ball come in and grabs it. That makes him dangerous.”
Richardson recognized what his return might mean for Spruce and his buds, telling him in camp he “needed a lot out of him. I needed him to step up and help lead the troops. He’s done that, plus he’s playing well. He’s a kid who does the right things.”
In watching Spruce develop for two years, Richardson said the most noticeable change has been in Spruce’s maturity and increased self-confidence: “He’s recognized that I’m not the only guy out here and he can hold his own. I’ve been happy to see that.”
Spruce simply wanted to do it right and stay consistent, which along with leading by example are personal sources of pride. He also has prided himself in being available for Wood or any of the QBs when they need a receiver for passing work.
“Along with not missing practices, I want to be out there and available whenever for the quarterback, making every catch,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of my success. The saying here is ‘you can’t make the club in the tub.’ As long as you’re out here practicing and the coaches can look at you for a certain amount of reps, that’s good.”
Lindgren and Walters set weekly goals for the offense as a whole and the receivers as a group. That hasn’t been done in the past by positions, but it’s a change Spruce embraces: “It makes you work harder during the week. I really like it.”
Aside from those, Spruce also entered August camp with a list of personal goals. But he wants to keep those to himself until season’s end. If he and the Buffs can build on what they’ve accomplished in the first two games, chances are good that Nelson Spruce won’t mind sharing come late November.
NOTABLE: Coach Mike MacIntrye’s team practiced on grass for the first time in nearly week on Wednesday morning. MacIntyre told the media the session went well on a day that was spent preparing for Oregon State, the Buffs’ opponent on Saturday, Sept. 28 . . . . Freshman safety and special teamer Tedrick Thompson is continuing to make strides in practice, MacIntyre said. Thompson leads the team in special teams points (six) after the first two games . . . . All eight assistant coaches will be on recruiting assignments over the next two days and therefore will miss Thursday and Friday’s practice sessions. MacIntyre and his team will work with a skeleton crew staff for the next two days . . . . Backup quarterback Sefo Liufau, a true freshman, as impressed his coaches with his work ethic and is making great strides as he continues to learn the offense. “He is staying focused and preparing like he’s going to play. He has handled his role well,” MacIntyre said . . . . Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion has been a focal point of CU’s game planning efforts early in their preparation for the matchup in Corvallis. MacIntyre lauded the senior’s arm strength and accuracy during Wednesday’s brief post-practice media session.