The first time I saw Nu'Keese Richardson with the football in a Tennessee practice, I wanted to hit "rewind." He went from one side of the field to the other so fast, the whole thing was a blur.
At the midpoint of his run, the UT quarterback turned and made a short pitch, which Richardson caught in stride. Although the Vols have run the same play in each of the last few practices, familiarity hasn't eliminated the element of surprise. It's not the play. It's the player, a 5-foot-something ("5-10 or 5-9," he says when asked) freshman from Pahokee, Fla.
He's generously listed at 165 pounds, but he looks bigger every time I see him on the practice field.
You immediately think about the difficult transition from high school to college for a player that size. But it's evident after a week of practices, that he's not the only one who will have to adjust. So will anyone trying to cover him or get an arm around his tiny waist.
The guy can play. And he has plenty of experience negotiating his way through a sport of giants.
He started playing football when he was 8. Guess what? He was the smallest player on the field, then, too.
He's not just used to it. He likes it.
When you're the little guy in a game as rough as football, you learn how to take a hit -and more importantly, you learn how to avoid one. You also learn to take advantages of your opponents' misconceptions.
"They look at my size and think it's all about speed, not knowing about my jumping ability," Richardson said at UT's football media day Sunday.
His athleticism was obvious in the first week of practice. But it was hardly unexpected if you checked his football resume.
He ran a 10.5-second 100 meters in track. He played point guard and off-ball guard on his high school basketball team. And if you saw him soar above defenders to make a catch in practice, you wouldn't have to ask if he could dunk.
He helped his football team win three consecutive state championships. He started out as a quarterback, took up wide receiver as a junior and played both as a senior. His stats reflect his versatility: 274 yards rushing, 373 yards receiving and 1,020 yards passing in his senior season.
His high school success made him a recruiting target - albeit a slippery one, Florida would contend. Richardson first committed to the Gators, then made a spin move to UT and head coach Lane Kiffin, who offered recruits an early opportunity for playing time if they were up to it. That pitch must have been irresistible to Richardson, who has been proving he's bigger than he looks since he caught his first pass.
His mom, Cynthia Richardson, threw that first pass. As protective as she might have been of the smallest player on the team, she didn't discourage him from playing football once she understood his passion for it.
"She knew I had a big heart," he said. "I've never been scared of no one in my whole life. If I wanted to do something, she knew I was going to do it."
The way he describes their connection, she probably wouldn't be surprised at what her son has accomplished. As a track athlete and cheerleader, she also could identify with it - if she were here to see it. Cynthia died when Nu'Keese was only 10.
Other women helped finish what his mother started. He lived with an aunt in Syracuse, then moved back to Florida to stay with a grandmother.
"I've always been a momma's boy," he said. "Nothing but women raised me."
But the first woman in his life is the one who taught him to throw and catch. And she was the first to realize what so many others would figure out later.
Once Nu'Keese had a football in his hands, his size didn't matter.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.