CHARLOTTESVILLE – There was a time when a day spent away from the football field for Clifton Richardson meant stretching and keeping limber could be put on the backburner. Those weren't exactly priorities in his life.
That's what he thought when he was a freshman at Virginia. He was invincible. After rarely getting banged up during his playing days at Menchville High, Richardson's idea of an injury never consisted of something he couldn't play through in the long run.
His opinion regarding the virtues of keeping his muscles properly fine-tuned changed last season, when he dealt with nagging hamstring injuries that emerged during the summer and ended up keeping him out of five games. He didn't feel like he was back to 100 percent until the last game of the season at Virginia Tech.
"I was trying to come back too fast," said Richardson, a 6-foot-0, 210-pound rising junior who was expected to be U.Va.'s power running option last season behind diminutive backs Kevin Parks and Perry Jones, but Richardson instead had just 24 carries for 59 yards. "That was my biggest problem."
Richardson takes his stretching regimen a lot more seriously these days. He does daily exercises to stretch and strengthen his legs and hips, in addition to making regular visits to the hot and cold tubs.
He's still the same punishing runner when he has the ball, as evidenced by some of the shoulder pad-cracking that went on Saturday in a spring practice scrimmage while he was playing with the first team offense. Parks, who is the projected starter after leading the team last season with 734 yards, sat out with a minor injury.
After practice, Richardson looked as if he'd gone nine innings on the mound for U.Va.'s baseball team, sporting a heavy ice bag on his left shoulder under an orange t-shirt.
"That's kind of my game," said Richardson, who had 13 carries for 72 yards and two touchdowns in 2011 as a freshman. "Coach (Mike London) wants one step and go. He doesn't want us to do a whole lot of dancing, so I lower the shoulder."
While Richardson did his usual battering ram impression, U.Va.'s offense was highlighted during the scrimmage by two long passes.
On the opening play, first team quarterback David Watford, a Hampton High graduate, spotted wide receiver Tim Smith running past cornerback Maurice Canady up the right sideline. Watford hit Smith with a high-arching pass for a 79-yard gain to the 1-yard line against the first team defense.
Greyson Lambert, who was working as the No. 2 quarterback, found receiver Adrian Gamble for a 42-yard pass play while working against the second team defense.
Richardson didn't have any spectacular runs in the scrimmage, but London set the tone early for what he wanted to see. On Richardson's first carry, in which he ran left and tried to side-step an oncoming tackler before running for no gain, London leaned in behind Richardson after the play to offer some advice.
"Don't dilly dally," said London after the carry. "Turn your shoulders up field and let's go."
Richardson has told reporters he's lost 10 pounds so far this offseason. London says it's more like two pounds.
Regardless, with elite running back signee Taquan Mizzell from Bayside High in Virginia Beach joining Parks, Richardson, Khalek Shepherd and Kye Morgan in U.Va.'s backfield in August, Richardson will have to stay in top condition to challenge for significant playing time.
"It's been a process with him getting himself in the type of shape he needs to be," London said. "It's still a work in progress, but he understands it's going to be very competitive here as far as the tailback situation is concerned. There's another player coming in that has some accomplishments. All those guys know that their best effort is what's being evaluated every day."
Other than six days in May he plans to spend in Colorado and New Mexico visiting Native American reservations as part of a class he's taking, Richardson intends to be in Charlottesville all spring and summer. His time spent off the playing field last fall gave him a new perspective on the game.
"Just keep your eye on the big picture," Richardson said. "Don't let the little things bring you down.
"I don't feel like I lost anything. I think it'll be better for me in the long run, because I could sit back and learn the offense and learn what (Parks) and (Perry Jones) were doing. They taught me a lot."