"I've measured it," he said of his informal efforts kicking the ball off this month. "I'm kicking five yards farther than I was. I don't know if that's from weightlifting or stretching, but there is a difference."
And as fans understand, those five yards can be a big difference in shifting field position to Mississippi State's favor this fall. Which is why the coaching staff has placed so much faith in the second-year specialist who should be making his first collegiate kick come August 30. Despite a limited true-freshman year while recovering from a scrimmage-broken foot, Richards is already booked as kickoff man going into the campaign.
"From what coach has been saying to me, I'm really focused on kickoffs. It doesn't look like they're needing me for the placekicking and punting yet. So I'm looking forward to kicking off right now."
Not that Richards is ignoring the other two roles. In spring he confirmed, as anticipated, his status as backup to the senior specialists, punter Blake McAdams and placekicker Adam Carlson. But if the year plays out as planned those upperclassmen will take care of their particular plays, with Carlson handing (footing?) off his kickoff duties to the younger man.
"I mean I practice all three and I'll be ready for whatever they need me for," said Richards. "But right now what I need to focus on is my starting spot on kicking off." Obviously he's really focusing this July because many days he has to go straight from the workout field to the training room. "I have to ice it after practice. But after a month or two of kicking I should be alright. It bruises so I have to go in and ice it to keep the swelling down."
Fear not. The bruising only signifies that Richards is still making up for time lost while the broken bone in the booting foot healed. The damage has healed fully, this is merely a matter of toughening everything up to game-shape.
"My foot's fine, I'm 100% now. It just took a few months to re-hab it but I'm full-strength now. I mean there's a stinging sensation because I hadn't been kicking in so long, it's kind of a little tender. But I'm kicking farther than I was so it hasn't affected me much." And if any wonder yes, the stinging is real and not merely in the kicker's head. "I feel it!"
But of course the obvious good news is how Richards is stinging the ball off the tee. Not only is it going those five yards farther, consistently, but the hang time has lengthened as well. "I have a lot more height than I did." That's certainly an upgrade on Richards' tentative efforts last August where his initial attempts at kicking off had neither distance nor height. He might have redshirted anyway, but that issue was settled when on a scrimmage punt his foot caught an oncoming defender.
Fortunately it was a routine repair procedure. And instead of sacking it in for the rest of the fall, Richards responded with an aggressive re-hab effort. So much so that by December the rookie actually could have been activated if needed. He wasn't fortunately.
"I was ready for the bowl game, but it would have been a waste to play just one game and use a whole year of eligibility. I was focused on this year, to just get ready for the Louisiana Tech game."
Richards certainly looks ready. That redshirt year has definitely paid off in terms of all-body strength and condition, to the point Richards jokes—sort of—that "I've lost 25 pounds." Actually the 225 pounds he currently claims is almost the same as his official listed bulk in spring. But the pounds are clearly distributed better on the 6-4 frame. "I'm bigger in the upper-body, but I've lost in the mid-section," he explained.
Setting aside classic quips about needing guts, and maybe a gut, to be a really good kicker, Richards really does enjoy the new-look and better-condition. Besides, "It doesn't help when you're trying to cut the angle on a 4.2 sprinter out there! So I've got a lot faster. And Coach Pollard doesn't want (a gut) on me, he wants everybody to look like they're in shape…even if you are a kicker!"
Kicker-jests aside, everyone involved with Bulldog football appreciates the difference a calm head and strong leg makes in special situations. In fact any list of the biggest plays of 2007 would include McAdams' booming fourth-quarter punt at Auburn that changed how the period played out; and Carlson's career-long, 48-yard field goal that put up the winning points in the Egg Bowl. Those kicking-game plays were the best but far from only examples of how Mississippi State made winning progress from 2006 struggles with special teams to '07 successes.
Now Richards intends to add another element to the repertoire with consistently deep and high kickoffs. He surely looks the part with that 6-4 stature and maturing muscles. "My body has changed a lot, just this weightlifting program has helped a lot and the flexibility factor might have changed a lot. Not in the way I kick," he adds; nothing technical has been changed since arriving on campus, for better or worse. Because for all their other professional expertise "There aren't a lot of guys who coach this," Richards notes. Which is likely for the best. "You don't want to mess a kicker up who's doing alright!"
So what Richards has done is try to learn from the elders for the future. Or, though he hopes it doesn't come to pass, for emergency use now. He said he's done some summer punting but it's hard to measure if progress is there without spotters. "And placekicking, you can practice but it gets kind of tiring running down to get the ball every time. It helps a lot when you have everybody out there and a few shaggers to help you out." Besides, there's still a little nagging legacy in one hip from a prep all-star game collision that affects his motion on the placekick.
But the kickoffs…those are looking good after an intense winter re-hab and vigorous spring in the weightroom. Richards admits that as a prepster "I didn't lift a single weight" so this was new. It didn't take long to appreciate Pollard's program, though. "I really wasn't sure so I was interested in how it would affect me. But it really has changed, as far as the hip exercises we do, the glutes, the hamstrings. And it has improved my leg speed I'd say."
Thus it's full-speed ahead to August for Richards and his special-play peers. And he understands all that teammates and fans want to see that last Saturday evening of the month is how close the football gets to the goal line on his opening kickoff. Few will be admiring how much better he now looks in a uniform. "And being a kicker you don't get a lot of respect either way!" he quipped. Except of course, "When it comes time for the play that matters."