TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Trent Richardson looked like he may be on his way to a banner day.
Early in the second quarter of last year’s game at LSU, Richardson gave Alabama a 7-3 lead when he caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Greg McElroy in the right flat, a play he set up with a 22-yard burst moments earlier.
But as he scored the game’s first touchdown, Richardson suffered a sprained left knee.
He had only one more carry the rest of the way. LSU rallied for a 24-21 win.
So now, as Alabama prepares for Saturday’s rematch at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Richardson aims to finish what he started against the Tigers for 60 minutes strong.
“This game means a lot to me, because I didn’t get to play in it last year but like one quarter,” he said. “I really can’t wait to showcase what a healthy Trent can do in this game.”
If he looks anything like the running back who has tormented Southeastern Conference defenses all season, Richardson is sure to strengthen his case for the Heisman Trophy, an award he and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck appear in a footrace to win.
Richardson has been a blur of broken tackles and breakaway runs in rushing for a league-high 989 yards and 17 touchdowns on 149 attempts.
But Saturday, he will face an LSU defense that ranks third nationally against the run.
The Tigers tamed Oregon running back LaMichael James, another Heisman hopeful, on college football’s opening weekend. They figure to focus similar attention on Richardson.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, whether it’s Vandy or Duke - it doesn’t matter who,” Richardson said. “They’re going to go after me just because of the hype people have put upon me.”
The hype has been building for years.
Richardson came out of Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., the same school that produced Emmitt Smith two decades earlier, as one of the nation’s top prospects. He wasted little time making his presence known at Alabama, even if he had to wait for a starring role.
The backup to Mark Ingram as a freshman and sophomore, Richardson accumulated 1,451 rushing yards in his first two seasons.
He played well enough to earn second-team All-Southeastern Conference recognition last season after making the SEC’s All-Freshman team the year before.
So happens, Ingram was in front of him.
Ingram became Alabama’s only Heisman Trophy winner in 2009 as the Crimson Tide won the BCS national title. He rushed for 875 yards and 13 touchdowns last year.
But after Ingram left for the NFL following his junior season, Richardson finally had his shot as the feature back.
He hasn’t disappointed.
“He always practices hard. He always has the right mentality when he goes to work. Every time he gets the ball at practice, it’s like it’s his last time he’s going to get it. That’s the way he practices, and I think that’s what separates him from a lot of other talented backs,” Alabama center William Vlachos said.
Before being held to 77 yards by Tennessee in Alabama’s eighth game, Richardson had gone six straight games with 100-plus rushing yards, matching Shaun Alexander’s school record for consecutive 100-yard games. In a rout of Ole Miss last month, he busted loose for a career-high 183 yards and four scores, and he had 162 yards earlier in the season against North Texas.
Richardson’s numbers thus far stack up favorably with Ingram’s during the former Alabama star’s Heisman season.
Through eight games in 2009, Ingram had only 15 more rushing yards than Richardson does through eight games this year and had rushed for nine fewer touchdowns.
About the only thing Richardson lacks, to this point, is a signature moment.
He knows he will have his chances when Alabama lines up against the stiffest run defense he’ll see all year.
“They’re going to come at you, try to hit you in the mouth,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to get everybody going. If we start fast, we’ve got to make sure we finish this game 60 minutes strong.”