Alabama center William Vlachos remembers the first time he laid eyes on soon-to-be-teammate Trent Richardson. "The day he walked in this building, everyone's jaw hit the floor," Vlachos said of the Tide's 5-foot-11, 224-pound tailback. "He's just a physical specimen."
Anyone who's watched the junior break ankles (figuratively), bulldoze tacklers and race his way down sidelines would surely agree. In the past two seasons Richardson rushed for 1,451 yards, had another 392 yards receiving and returned 25 kickoffs. He can bench-press 475 pounds. And yet, strange as it sounds for a guy who will enter this season on every Heisman short list, to this point Richardson has been the Tide's No. 2 running back. That's about to change.
With 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram off to the NFL (the Saints selected him with the 28th pick in this spring's draft), Richardson is finally the undisputed star of Alabama's backfield. He's been there before -- briefly.
When Ingram injured his knee just before the start of last season, Richardson took his place for the first two games, against San Jose State and Penn State. Richardson had a career night in the Tide's 24-3 win over the Nittany Lions, carrying 22 times for 144 yards and a touchdown and catching four passes for 46 yards. But after that he had only one other 100-yard game. "Trent played his best football last year when Mark wasn't playing in the first [two] games," said coach Nick Saban. "We're hopeful with him being the bell cow, that he'll grow into that role of being a leader and a go-to guy."
That's an opportunity Richardson relishes. "I didn't want to see Mark leave [early], but it's a big opportunity for me," he said. "I'm very excited to be that guy at Alabama who's going to start the game off and be the main guy."
Barring injury, it's hard to imagine he won't deliver. In fact, with Alabama breaking in a new starting quarterback, Richardson -- running behind a veteran offensive line -- could have a chance to top the school-record 1,658 yards Ingram gained during his Heisman campaign two years ago.
Already known as one of the strongest players in the country, Richardson looked even faster and more elusive during spring practices. "Trent is a rare combination of size, speed and durability," said Saban. As for leadership, Vlachos said Richardson practices it by example. "Rarely does the first guy ever bring him down," said the lineman. "He picks up everyone's energy and intensity, and it makes you want to empty your bucket for the guy next to you."
Alabama had never had a Heisman winner before Ingram; Richardson could make it two in three years. Like Ingram (a Michigan native), Richardson is not from Alabama, though he grew up just across the border in Pensacola, Fla. As a senior at Escambia High, Richardson rushed for 2,090 yards and 26 touchdowns, eliciting the biggest recruiting frenzy at the school since Emmitt Smith played there in the mid-'80s. Richardson visited Florida, Florida State and LSU, but the Tide was the first to offer a scholarship. Richardson committed the summer before his senior year and proved prophetic in saying, "With the players Alabama has, we could win the national championship by my sophomore year or even my freshman year."
Richardson ran for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide's title-clinching 37-21 win over Texas that season. For the Tide to finish on top again during his junior year, Richardson will need to put up those kinds of numbers on a regular basis.