It didn’t take long for Dont’a Hightower to join Trent Richardson’s fan club.
Forget Richardson’s five-star ranking coming out of high school. What really impressed Alabama’s veteran linebacker was seeing Richardson in the flesh during his very first 7-on-7 workout in the summer of 2009.
Sultry doesn’t even begin to describe the summers in the South, but as the sun’s heat burned and the humidity suffocated, Hightower watched as the freshman stole the show.
It was a small check-down, where Richardson simply had to come through the backfield and stop in front of the linebackers. But what looked like a normal play turned into something fascinating as Richardson took the ball, shook a few defenders and sprinted for a touchdown.
It was at that moment that Hightower realized this kid would be special.
That give-it-your-all mentality has never left Richardson, who enters the season as Alabama‘s No. 1 running back after spending his first two seasons as a backup. Though he’s had to sit behind former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Richardson has played with the demeanor of a starter -- a darn good one.
“Mark missed a couple games early in the season last year, and Trent probably played his best football of the season when he was in that sort of A-back role, being 'the guy,' coach Nick Saban said.
“I don't have any issue or problem with Trent's ability to play with consistency and be successful.”
He’s built like a tank, but runs with finesse and grace. When he’s not cutting past defenders, or throwing them to the ground, his movements and speed mimic a track star, giving him the ability to outrun you and run through you.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a game where it has taken one guy to make him go down,” Hightower said.
“You don’t see too many guys run with that much attitude and that much power and explosiveness each and every play.”
Richardson isn’t tall, barely reaching 5-foot-11, but he delivers all of his 224 pounds. In his first two seasons at Alabama, he had 1,451 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He also grabbed 39 passes for 392 yards and four more scores.
He’s a physical freak and thinks he has what it takes to not only be one of the best backs in the SEC, but he’ll put his skill up against any of his national counterparts.
“I know that I want to be one of the best backs, one of the best not just in the conference, although the conference is great and has some great backs, but one of the best backs in the country,” Richardson said. “I want to have my name remembered, be one of those players you can see on the greatest games, someone who was one of the best on the field.”
Lead Alabama to success and you’ll be more than just remembered.
But is Richardson ready? Can he handle the load of being the guy for a backfield that will feature an inexperienced quarterback?
And what about his durability? He suffered plenty of nicks and bruises last season, even suffering a knee and abdominal injury against LSU, but assures he’ll be more prepared to withstand the beating this fall. And by more prepared he just intends to run even harder, making sure he inflicts more pain than he receives.
Alabama‘s camp feels Richardson is ready to take over and players around the league agree.
“To play against a guy like that, you have to really elevate your level of play because he will embarrass you,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said.
Arkansas’ Knile Davis called him a “phenomenal athlete” and envied his running patience.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore said he tries to mimic Richardson’s cutting ability and the toughness in his runs.
Outside of the SEC, there have been plenty of eyes on Richardson. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by both the media and the league’s coaches this summer and he‘s an early Heisman contender.
He’s even feeling some heat from his three- and five-year-old daughters, who are die-hard Tide fans, dressed in his jerseys and already screaming “Roll Tide.”
“Those little girls are so smart,” Richardson said. “They’ll tell me, ‘Hey, you fumbled the ball.
“It’s kind of cute when you hear it from your daughter.”
It won’t be so cute when he’s hearing it from his coaches or media pundits. But Richardson isn’t concerning himself with that. He understands the expectations and he understands this team might go as far as he carries it.
“Is it pressure? I think it is, but I don’t even pay attention to the stuff they [the media] put out there,” he said. “I know I’m going to play my game and I have an offensive line that’s going to be pretty good this year and we have a quarterback that’s going to make smart decisions.”