BOULDER - Paul Richardson has embarked on an intensified five-week rehab regimen that could return the junior receiver to the Colorado lineup before the Buffs get deep into Pac-12 Conference play.
The operative word remains "could." As was the case when he began his recovery from ACL surgery on his left knee in mid-April, there still are no guarantees he will play in the 2012 season.
But at the end of his five-week program - on or about Sept. 16 - Richardson will be reevaluated. That date will mark five months since his ACL surgery, an operation which historically can require six to nine months or longer for full recovery.
However, some athletes return faster and Richardson's progress since his surgery has been on the fast track.
Dr. Eric McCarty, the former Buffs linebacker who now is a member of CU's sports medicine team, said Richardson "is doing remarkably well, really shooting past the benchmark (for healing). At the five-month mark we want to see where he is so we can reevaluate and assess . . . see if he's ready.
"We don't know if he'll have all the progress that's required after five months. So we're being very cautious with this; nobody's pushing him but he wants to push and see where he is."
Under the right circumstances, "P-Rich" said he was hopeful of playing this season, but added, "I'm not anxious at all. I'm just happy that I'm going to be able to work out with some cleats on and be out here and put my gear on and feel like I'm a part of the team.
"As far as the timeline goes, it's give and take. I might be ready before, I might be ready after. Or I might just come back 100 percent for the following season."
What the CU medical team is doing with Richardson in his intensified program, McCarty said, is "challenging the body to do some things" before measuring his progress at the five-month mark.
With surgery involving grafts, progress sometimes is "hard to measure," McCarty said. "The healing of the graft takes a while. The body takes hold about a month after it's put in and (healing) occurs at varying speeds."
A spectator for the first week and a half of August camp, Richardson was fitted for a new knee brace earlier this week. Following that, he stepped up his rehabilitation program under the direction of Steve Englehart, assistant director of strength, speed and conditioning.
Englehart said Richardson "is all in . . . just like he did last spring, he's putting everything he has into this."
But Richardson realizes the decision to return is a collaborative one involving his parents and CU's medical staff and coaches, and all parties involved - including Richardson - have indicated they will be vigilant.
"We're always going to come down on the side of caution," CU coach Jon Embree said. "There's a lot of football left for him."
Earlier this summer, Embree said when it was time to make a decision, "ultimately it will be his family's . . . they're the ones at the end of the day who will have to live with the consequences. We all hope it's a Cinderella story, but if it isn't . . . I don't want to jeopardize his career. Yet if he's cleared and the family feels great and he feels great . . ."
Just as Richardson stepped up his rehab program this week, Embree gave him an article featuring NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice. "It was ironic," Embree said. "(Rice) was saying he came back too fast (from a knee injury) and that caused a second knee injury. If he had to do it all over again he would have waited.
"I'm going to reach out to a few people who have gone through it and just try to get (Richardson) on the phone at the same time and make sure he understands what it's about."
When he reaches the five-month post-surgery mark, Richardson said he wants to see if the team "even needs me" before any decision is made: "If they don't really need me and I'm not 100 percent, then that's another thing I would take into consideration."
From a position standpoint, the best-case scenario might be continued progress from CU's crop of returning receivers and newcomers that would negate any argument about a "team need" even factoring into Richardson's end of the decision.
Just under two weeks into camp, it appears the wideout spots have been upgraded with the continued development of returnees Tyler McCulloch, Keenan Canty and Nelson Spruce and the addition of freshmen Gerald Thomas and Jeffery Thomas, who is suspended for the first two games. Returnees Dustin Ebner and Jarrod Darden also have had their moments in camp.
Embree, though, said the team's won-loss record and how it was playing by mid-September would not have a bearing on Richardson's possible return: "Nope . . . it won't at all."
After opening against Colorado State on Sept. 1 in Denver, the Buffs return to Folsom Field for their home opener on Sept. 8 against Sacramento State. Their first road trip (Fresno State) comes the following weekend - Sept. 15 - followed by their Pac-12 opener on Sept. 22 at Washington State. The Pac-12 home opener is against UCLA on Sept. 29.
Richardson is hopeful that by the end of September he'll know what the rest of the season holds for him. "I'm going to wake up one morning and know I can play . . . it's going to feel so good," he said.
He doesn't know when that morning will arrive, but just as he's been since last spring he is intent on getting there. Very, very cautiously.
BUFF BITS: Embree said there was "good energy, good enthusiasm" in Thursday morning's practice. "We're starting to take shape as a team on both side of the ball," he said. A lighter practice is scheduled Friday before Saturday's scrimmage, which could determine starters and backups in the defensive line, the secondary, the receiving corps and at fullback. "There's guys playing for stuff," Embree said, adding the scrimmage would match the No. 1 offenses and defenses. "We always do ones vs. ones . . . I just believe that's how you play." To be included will be special teams work and some game situations . . . . Freshman receiver Gerald Thomas and sophomore linebacker Brady Daigh might miss the scrimmage due to concussion symptoms . . . . Embree said a backup quarterback - either Connor Wood or Nick Hirschman - could emerge from the scrimmage. "That's one of the things we're focusing on now, so we'll see if it shows itself then or if we have to continue on. But we'd like to get that done." . . . . A day after naming junior Jordan Webb the starting quarterback, Embree said there had been no pressure removed: "He still has to produce every day. We talk to those guys individually and let them know they have to do it every day. It's not just at the quarterback position, either."