By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a football team stocked with players from the 7-5-7 — the state’s Tidewater region — only one lists Newport News as his hometown. And that’s why UVa’s next practice carries special significance for tailback Clifton Richardson.
A 2011 graduate of Newport News’ Menchville High School, Richardson is heading home. At the second of the three practices they’re holding away from Charlottesville this spring, the Cavaliers will work out Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Christopher Newport University’s POMOCO Stadium.
The practice is free and open to the public, and Richardson expects many of his friends and relatives to attend.
“It’s a huge deal,” Richardson said Wednesday. “I haven’t played in Newport News in a year, so it’s going to be just like high school: under the lights, Friday night.”
Of the 12 true freshmen who played for Virginia in 2011, few had a greater impact than Richardson. At 6-0, 215 pounds, he’s considerably larger than the Wahoos’ other tailbacks — Perry Jones (5-8, 185), Kevin Parks (5-8, 195) and Khalek Shepherd (5-8, 185) — and doesn’t shy away from contact.
Richardson finished the season with 72 carries for 374 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was fun, and it was a huge learning curve,” Richardson said of his first season. “But now I got everything down pat and I’m just ready to compete with everybody.”
Jones was the Cavaliers’ starting tailback last season, and Parks was No. 2. When Richardson entered games, it was usually to run the ball. He struggled in pass protection and wasn’t used much out of the backfield. (He caught only one pass in 2011, for a 6-yard touchdown against NC State.)
Expect to see Richardson deployed in a variety of roles this fall, UVa coach Mike London told reporters Wednesday.
“Absolutely,” London said. “Clifton has done a nice job with allowing the playbook to expand and him learning the playbook. You put him in as a freshman, and he had specific plays called for him, and things like that.
“Clifton has done a better job of understanding even the pass protections and the blitz pickups. And so he can go in there and he can run a power play and do a good job of it, but he can stay in the game now, because he knows the protections.”
The 2012 version of Richardson “can run, he can pass-protect, and he can catch,” London said. “It’s another dimension with him.”
The other tailbacks like to tease him, Richardson said, by calling him the team’s “power back,” but he’s not particularly fond of that designation.
“Because I can do the same things that they can do,” he said. “I’m an all-purpose back. I can do anything.”
Virginia ended its second season under London with a loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Kicking-game breakdowns contributed heavily to the Cavaliers’ defeat, and the coaching staff plans to use prominent players more often on special teams this year.
That may mean having “a guy like [Richardson] get more involved in one or two phases of our special teams,” London said.
“When we play other teams, you see offensive starters and defensive starters playing different roles on their special teams. [Richardson is] a big guy that runs. So his role is gonna increase, for sure.”
At Menchville, Richardson played running back, quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and free safety. The Monarchs, who finished 2-8 in 2009 and again in ’10, could not keep up with the Peninsula District’s perennial powers, Phoebus and Hampton, but Richardson established himself as one of the state’s best players.
At UVa, he’s making strides off the field as well. “People thought he wouldn’t do well in the classroom,” London said, “but he’s doing well now.”
Richardson said he’s had to improve his time-management skills, “but we’ve got a great academic staff here. Everybody keeps me on track, and I’m keeping myself on track, so everything’s going great.”
The ‘Hoos practiced at Fairfax High School in Northern Virginia last weekend. The team will be at Sports Backers Stadium in Richmond on April 7. The practices make it easier for high school coaches, prospects and fans around the state to see the Cavaliers.
“It’s something different,” London said. “The players like it, and we’re going to keep on doing it.”
In 2010, UVa held one of its spring practices in Norfolk. A year ago, the ‘Hoos practiced at Darling Stadium in Hampton and at Episcopal High in Alexandria. London believes the road trips have paid, and will continue to pay, dividends for Virginia in recruiting, because the practices give prospects “a chance to come out and actually watch the coaches coach, their style, the techniques that they’re coaching,” he said.
“When they come to games [at Scott Stadium], it’s nice they come to games, but they go sit up in the stands somewhere high up in the seats, and they watch the games from there. But when they come to practices like this, at open venues, they can see their position coach coach and teach and see his temperament. And I think that’s been beneficial, because every place we’ve been, as a result we’ve had opportunities for young men to see us and check another box off as far as what they’ve learned about Virginia football.”
EXTRA POINTS: The first 1,500 fans in attendance Friday night will receive a free UVa Football/STIHL T-shirt. (STIHL is sponsoring the practice.)
The stadium’s gates will open at 6 p.m. Activities for youths will be held on the grass field outside the stadium’s main gate. Also, donations of canned food, to benefit the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, will be accepted at the stadium Friday night.