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This article is the second part of CUI Sports Writer Tommy Wood’s series on Paul Richardson. You can find the first part, a look at his NFL prospects, here.
The tape measure says Paul Richardson stands 6 feet, 1 inch tall. The scale says he weighs 175 pounds. The stopwatch clocks his 40-yard dash time at 4.4 seconds, and his vertical jump measures 38 inches.
Those numbers paint a picture of a lanky, explosive wide receiver. But, as with the 255 other players that will be selected in this year’s NFL Draft, those numbers are a poor summation of the player.
First days at CU
Fast receivers are a dime a dozen but to Colorado, Richardson is more than that. He was the lone positive force in the CU football program in the past seven years. He came to Colorado when the program seemed as if it couldn’t sink any lower, and survived when it did.
Richardson was an unknown when he arrived in Boulder in the fall of 2010. He wasn’t even supposed to be here. The L.A. native originally enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles. It was a perfect fit: his hometown school where his father, Paul Senior, played receiver for three years.
But Richardson never played a snap for the Bruins. An off-the-field incident that he didn’t elaborate on landed him in then-coach Rick Neuheisel’s doghouse. Neuheisel dismissed Richardson from the program, and he transferred to avoid losing a year of eligibility.
Richardson chose Colorado because three receivers had just been kicked off the team, guaranteeing him early playing time. His high school quarterback was also on CU’s roster.
When Richardson arrived on campus, the Buffs were led by receiver Scotty McKnight, who would set CU records for receptions and touchdown catches that season. The freshman and senior gravitated toward each other.
“We started going through simple cone drills, and within 10 to 15 minutes of working out, I realized this kid is something special,” McKnight said of his first day of practice with Richardson.
Richardson approached McKnight in the locker room after practice. McKnight was happy to be his mentor.
“I’d been here four and a half years, and no one ever approached me like that,” he said.
For his part, Richardson says McKnight was like an older brother. The two could have been a productive duo on the field, but Colorado’s offense was unstable at the beginning of the season. Coach Hawkins spent the previous year vacillating between two different quarterbacks, his son Cody and the mobile Tyler Hansen.
Neither quarterback established a rhythm, and Colorado finished the 2009 season 3-9. Hawkins entered 2010 needing a major turnaround to save his job. Hansen was named starter, but he and Richardson didn’t click immediately.
Richardson didn’t score a touchdown for the first six games as Colorado limped to a 3-3 record. The turning point for his season came in the seventh game against Texas Tech University.
Hansen ruptured his spleen in the second quarter, and Cody Hawkins replaced him.
“Cody told me that if he ever got in, he was going to throw me touchdowns,” Richardson said. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
Richardson finished the game with four catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns. He finally made an impact, but the team didn’t turn things around like he did. Colorado lost that game. They were blown out the next week at Oklahoma before a trip to Kansas.
Richardson played the best game of his young career against the University of Kansas Jayhawks. He caught 11 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Colorado built a 45-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Buffs kept throwing the ball.
Every incomplete pass extended the game. Every Kansas touchdown eroded CU’s confidence. Then Hawkins threw an interception. Kansas scored again. Hawkins lost a fumble. Kansas scored. The Jayhawks ran up 35 consecutive points to take a 52-45 lead with less than a minute remaining.
Colorado got the ball to Kansas’ 7-yard line in the waning seconds. Richardson caught what should have been the game-tying touchdown as time expired, but a controversial call cost the Buffs the game.
The game was the worst collapse in the history of Colorado football. Post-Kansas, Hawkins lost his job. For the players, it was hard losing the only college coach most of them had ever known.
“When the team sees adversity, like your head coach being fired, the guy who’s recruited every single player on that roster, you have to rally,” McKnight said.
The Buffs did rally under interim coach Brian Cabral, winning their next two games to enter the season’s final week 5-6. A win at Nebraska would have made them bowl-eligible.
Colorado lost 45-17. Richardson caught two passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. It was another successful game for him that didn’t translate to the final score.
That season, with two head coaches and two starting quarterbacks, was only the beginning of the most turbulent period in CU football history.
Colorado hired Jon Embree as head coach following Richardson’s freshman year. It was a controversial hire: Embree, then the tight end coach for the Washington Redskins, had never been a head coach or offensive coordinator.
Richardson says many players rooted for Cabral to keep the job after the success of his limited run at the end of the previous season. Still, no one had a problem with the Embree hire. The players knew they had as big a role in turning the program around as the coaching staff.
“It was on us, as players, why we weren’t successful,” Richardson said.
Richardson backed his words with his play. He caught two touchdowns in a season-opening loss at Hawaii before Colorado’s home opener against University of California Berkeley.
“I knew what I was capable of,” Richardson said. “And I just picked up where I left off the previous season.”
At the end of the third quarter, Richardson caught a short pass from Hansen. He spun out of a tackle, cut across the field and blurred down the sideline. Sixty-six yards later, he was in the end zone.
On Colorado’s first drive of the fourth quarter, he took another short pass from Hansen. He kicked into top gear almost instantly. He never broke stride, and Cal’s defenders never had a chance. The 78-yard touchdown gave Colorado a four-point lead.
Richardson finished with a CU-record 284 yards on 11 catches, but again the team overcame his brilliance with its ineptitude. The game went into overtime. After the Buffs kicked a field goal on their first possession, penalties forced Cal into a first-and-30. It should have been an easy stop to seal the victory.
Instead Cal quarterback Zach Maynard hit Keenan Allen for 32 yards. Two plays later, the pair hooked up again for the winning touchdown.
It was that kind of season for Colorado. The Buffs lost eight of their first nine games. Richardson missed three games because of an injury. Still, Colorado won two of its final three games. In the season finale at Utah, the Buffs snapped a 24-game road losing streak.
That was as positive an ending as a 3-9 season could have had. Colorado went into Richardson’s junior season with momentum and hopes of a bowl game.
“But it just didn’t go in our favor, for whatever reason,” Richardson said.
Hopes ended by injury
He was practicing kick returns during a spring drill. He planted his foot to make a cut, and his knee gave out. He knew immediately that he’d torn his ACL.
With Richardson out, Colorado fell apart. The Buffs lost at home to FCS team California State University, Sacramento. Their offense was anemic, and their defense was a sieve. The losses piled up, each worse than the next:
69-14 at Fresno State.
50-6 at USC.
70-14 at Oregon.
48-0 against Stanford.
Colorado finished 1-11; the worst record in program history, and the first time the team didn’t win a home game. Richardson reiterated that Colorado’s struggles were on the players, not the coaches. Now one of the team’s veteran leaders, he concentrated on readying his teammates while rehabbing for the 2013 season-opener against Colorado State University.
Final days at CU
A decade ago, the Rocky Mountain Showdown was one of college football’s premiere rivalries. Eighty thousand people would pack into Sports Authority Field for a game televised on ESPN.
Today, a house divided has become a house ambivalent. Attendance has shrunk as the teams have regressed. Barely 59,000 saw the 2013 Rocky Mountain Showdown in person. On television, it was hidden on the CBS Sports Network.
Despite the game’s diminished stature, it was perhaps the most important game of Richardson’s college career.
“That was the first time I was ever really nervous,” he said. “I knew they expected me to be the guy. They expected me to be the answer to all of their problems. I knew there was a lot of weight on my shoulders.”
Any doubts about his knee were assuaged less than three minutes into the game. On Colorado’s second offensive play, CSU’s secondary ignored Richardson when quarterback Connor Wood started to run. Wood hit Richardson in stride. He walked into the end zone without a green jersey in sight.
“It went 70 or 80 yards,” Richardson said (it was 82.) “That made things a lot easier.”
In the fourth quarter, Richardson struck again. Colorado led by six with three minutes left. He lined up outside, gave his defender a little deke at the snap, and it was over. He was already at full speed when he caught the pass, and no defensive back in the country could catch him from behind.
The 75-yard touchdown sealed the victory and gave him his second career 200-yard game.
The next week, he dropped 209 yards and two more touchdowns against University of Central Arkansas. Richardson now owned three of the five 200-yard receiving games in Colorado history.
The Buffs made another quarterback change halfway through the season, replacing Wood with freshman Sefo Liufau. But nothing slowed Richardson down. He caught Liufau’s first career touchdown pass, a 60-yarder against Charleston Southern University.
As the season wore on, Richardson racked up one long touchdown after another. 75 yards against Arizona. 53 yards against Washington. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch for the year and an insane 41.8 yards per touchdown catch.
“My objective, every time I line up in front of somebody, is to outwork them,” Richardson said. “I feel I have the ability, the mindset and the skill set to outwork whoever is in front of me. That’s my attitude, and I don’t ever doubt myself.”
Richardson finished the year with 83 catches for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns. His declaring for the NFL Draft was only a formality.
“I did what I needed to do at the college level,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk hurting myself again, and I felt like I was ready.”
Time for the NFL
To prepare for the draft, Richardson attended the NFL Combine, the league’s intense, invasive and often pointless three-day job interview in February. He enjoyed being surrounded by like-minded players and the platform to show his skills to NFL teams.
He said teams genuinely wanted to get to know him and how he felt about his career at Colorado. They also offered lavish praise. Richardson said one general manager compared him to future Hall of Fame inductee Marvin Harrison.
Other scouts compare him to DeSean Jackson or Emmanuel Sanders, but Richardson doesn’t let the praise get to him. One of his many tattoos, a cross on his side, says “We’re all kings and we’re all lords, but He is the king of all kings and the lord of all lords.”
“It humbles me,” he said. “Because no matter now much praise I get, at the end of the day, the almighty is God, and that’s who the glory goes to.”
NFL teams value Richardson for that humility and work ethic as much as his speed. He said he doesn’t care when he’s drafted, he’ll work hard whenever and wherever he goes.
“I’ve been feeling like I could do this at a high level for a while now,” he said. “But there’s always someone who can do something better than you. That’s what keeps me on top of my game.”
As great an asset as he will be for an NFL team, his jump to the pros is a big loss for Colorado. The Buffs never won more than five games during Richardson’s career, but his impact on the program will be felt for years.
“They have hope,” Richardson said. “Like I said, it’s not on the coaches, it’s on the players. But the culture started to shift, and I think I helped it.”
His production will be hard to replicate, but Richardson is more than numbers and measureables to Colorado football.
He is past glory, present heartbreak and a lasting legacy. He gave the Buffs hope. What they do with it is on them.
Contact CUIndependent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org.