Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Tennessee freshman receiver Nu’Keese Richardson was at the center of all the controversy last February that has made Saturday’s grudge match at the Swamp one of those must-see games of the 2009 college football season.
He knows what kind of reception is coming.
“It’s not going to be a nice one, I know that,” said Richardson, who was committed to Florida for nine months before changing his mind and signing with the Vols. “That’s why you play the game. I don’t worry about the outsiders. I just try to do my job to the best of my ability.”
Richardson, a Pahokee, Fla., product, is part of a promising freshman class for the Vols. Their debut against Western Kentucky had everybody talking.
But last week in the 19-15 loss to UCLA, the Vols’ freshmen all but disappeared from the radar. Running back Bryce Brown had 34 yards on 11 carries, and that’s about it.
Now it’s onto their first road game and not just any venue, either. The Swamp has been known to rattle the knees of the most battle-tested juniors and seniors.
Throwing a bunch of freshmen out there can really get dicey.
Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, though, said he won’t be hesitant to play his young guys, including putting Richardson back deep to return punts.
Fellow freshman David Oku has also been returning kickoffs for the Vols.
“You’ve got to have confidence in them, and they have to feel your confidence,” Kiffin said. “If you start pulling all your younger guys because you’re going into a hostile environment, I don’t know that that really shows you believe in your team.
“Are they going to be perfect? No, we’re going to try and make it perfect. But they need to play. We’re in our first year as a program, going into our third game. If you have a philosophy that you’re going to play your younger players that you know are eventually going to be great players, there’s going to be some pains in that.”
Kiffin can live with those pains and insists he won’t be scared to play his talent, no matter how young and inexperienced they are or what the storylines may be that particular week.
“You can’t just go back to the old-school theory and sit them on the bench and say they’re not ready because they’re too young and play all your older guys,” Kiffin said. “That’s not how we operate.”
It’s just that kind of thinking that sold Richardson on Kiffin and the Vols and pried him away from the defending national champion Gators, thus triggering a few comments from Kiffin at a certain recruiting breakfast back in February that are still ringing in the Gators' ears.
“His confidence level is beyond what you’d expect,” Richardson said of his head coach. “That’s one of the main things that I love about him.”