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August 25, 2010

Richardson the Tide's top candidate to handle kick returns

TUSCALOOSA _ The general rule for a kick returner is if he ever gets the kicker one-on-one to either lower a shoulder or run away from him, anything to avoid the embarrassment of being stopped.

The last time University of Alabama sophomore Trent Richardson was in that situation he played with his victim for a bit and did a little of both.

"I was running up to him like I was going to truck him, then I went to the side and shook him," Richardson said, reflecting back to his days at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla. "Then I came back and ran him over."

Ah, road-kill memories, which were too few and far between because most opponents didn't dare kick to the Parade All-American when he was deep. This year, though, Richardson figures to be challenged a little bit more because it's looking like he'll be the Crimson Tide's primary kick-returner.

"I love kickoff returns," he said. "Hopefully I can come in and contribute a lot to the team this year."

While most of the offseason attention has been on the nine new defensive starters along with the three on offense, just as important for Alabama is replacing virtually everyone on special teams. While the competition continues at kicker and punter, and may not be completely resolved until after the season starts, a pecking order has emerged to fill All-American Javier Arenas' spots on returns.

For now, the frontrunners are last season's reserves, junior Julio Jones on punts and Richardson on kicks, ahead of juniors Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze, while true freshman Corey Grant is being groomed as well.

"Both of them have the most experience doing it after having been backups last year," Nick Saban said. "They've had the most experience in practice."

Jones had five punt returns last season for 75 yards, averaging 15.0 yards. Although Richardson was kickoffs more as the secondary option he fielded as many kicks as defensive end Damion Square, one, for 20 yards (the only other player with more than two returns was Terry Grant).

However, he did learn a lot from Arenas, who just missed setting the NCAA record for career punt-return yards.

"You have to have the patience, you have to set your blocks," Richardson said. "It's more like running back, you have to be quick on your feet and stuff and have a very good influence."

Speaking of running back, Richardson's getting ready to play a lot of that too, and appears poised to build on last year's 145 attempts for 751 yards and eight touchdowns in relief of Mark Ingram. However this year the plan is for more of an even split after they had nearly a 2-to-1 ratio last season.

"Mark is like a big brother to me," Richardson said. "We compete, but it's not like 'I hope you get hurt' or anything like that. We're out there having fun and when he's out there on the field I'm his biggest cheerleader."

However, even Richardson knows that his rise in carries could be the thing that works against Ingram the most in trying to become just the second player in college football history to win two Heisman Trophies, joining Archie Griffin (1974-75). Even while establishing the Alabama single-season rushing record with 1,658 yards, Ingram still needed things to fall the right way to win the 75th Heisman, and will probably to improve on his 6.1 average per carry to have a chance at repeating.

Meanwhile, Richardson averaged 5.2 yards per carry and also caught 16 passes out of the backfield, which led to his being named to the SEC's All-Freshman team last year and first-team preseason all-conference by media last month, joining Ingram.

"It means a lot, but now I have to live up to it," Richardson said, adding: "It's an honor just to be in the backfield with him and to be talked about with him."

Both say the focus is on the team, both believe the Crimson Tide's offense will improve, and both think that they themselves are better. Similar to how Ingram benefits by having another year under his belt, Richardson is more comfortable with his reads and blocks and is accelerating to the hole faster.

"We definitely want to be the best in school history, the best in the country," Ingram said. "I think that's everyone's goal on our team, to best offense, the most explosive offense we can be. That's our attitude going into every single practice."

Likewise, Alabama will be looking for improvement on kick returns too. Despite ranking second in the SEC for the second straight year in punt returns (15.1 average), it was just seventh in kick returns (23.3) after being ninth the season before.

"I like the open field," Richardson said. "It's one of my biggest things, a lot of people think I just have a lot of power, I like using my speed and my quickness."


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