While spending a few days in Myrtle Beach, S.C., around the holidays in preparation for the Offense-Defense High School All-American Bowl, Clifton Richardson made sure he took copious mental notes on what he was seeing in practices.
Richardson had committed about nine months earlier to Virginia, which recruited him as a promising running back prospect, but running back was still a relatively new concept to him. Though he played a little bit of every position that enabled him to get his hands on the ball at Menchville High, he spent much of his time at quarterback, including most of his senior season.
Menchville ran an offense that required Richardson to run a lot from the quarterback spot, but he needed to learn running back skills. Now, it's obvious natural ability coupled with whatever he picked up at events like that all-star game in Myrtle Beach have served him well.
"When I went to the All-American game, I kind of learned some steps from some of the guys that were there and the coaches," said Richardson, who rushed for a combined 2,139 yards in his last two seasons at Menchville. "It's really not that big of a change (going from running quarterback to running back) if you just read your keys."
U.Va. is eight days away from its season-opener against William and Mary. Richardson has a chance to get on the field as a 6-foot-0, 215-pound true freshman.
Those are dimensions that qualify him as a big tailback in U.Va.'s backfield, and may help him carve out a specific role. Every other tailback expected to contribute this season for U.Va. — Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd — is 5-8 and 195 pounds or less.
Richardson isn't anywhere near the kind of bruising back U.Va. had last season with 6-3, 255-pound Keith Payne, who led the team with 749 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, but Richardson may have to do.
"I guess I'm like the biggest one running it here, but I still like to use my shiftiness from time-to-time," said Richardson, who is No. 4 on U.Va.'s tailback depth chart. "Right now, I'm just focusing on hitting the holes (in the line of scrimmage) hard and doing what I need to do. If I'm the big back, then I'll be the big back. It doesn't really bother me."
U.Va. running backs coach Mike Faragalli has been most impressed with how well Richardson has made the transition to running back, including absorbing pass protection responsibilities. Faragalli said he's trying to keep Richardson from having to learn a lot of the protection aspects because he doesn't want Richardson to have to handle too much.
"I think how he's adapted to being a running back has been a pleasant surprise," said Faragalli, whose running backs helped U.Va. average 139.3 rushing yards per game last season — only 77th in the nation, but the first time the Cavaliers averaged more than 99.9 yards per game since 2005. "I'm not surprised by the speed and the quickness and all that stuff. I'm surprised by how he finishes his runs with his pads down, how physical he runs the ball. He has decent vision for a guy that hasn't really lined up in that spot before."
Though Richardson is also working on the punt-return unit, and as a possible return specialist on the kickoff-return team, his role as the No. 4 tailback may afford him no more than a couple carries per game. Last season, U.Va. handed the ball to more than three running backs in a game nine times, but the fourth-leading back in each of those nine games never ran the ball more than twice.
Would that kind of duty, plus some special teams roles sprinkled in, be enough to make Richardson want to burn a full season of eligibility? He'd make it work for him.
"It's worth it to me, because I'd concentrate on special teams, which is a big part of the game," said Richardson regarding his prospects for limited playing time. "If they did decide to redshirt me, I wouldn't be disappointed. I feel like it'd actually help me to get better. I feel like I've got a lot to improve. If I get redshirted, that's OK. If I don't, I'm going to go out there and bust my tail off."