Not far from the traffic-jammed road beyond the Kadlec Athletic Field’s gates, where the trees are already showing signs of subtle change, junior Sheldon Richardson dove onto the football in front him.
He plunged onto the fresh turf near the paper-white 10-yard line. The unique “10” font matches Missouri’s new stylistic brand, spawned by the school’s switch to the football-proud Southeastern Conference.
Richardson, a 6-foot-4-inch mound who wears a thick beard, carries 295 pounds and says he is back to the 40-yard dash time of about 4.7 seconds that once made him the nation’s No. 4 high school prospect in the land, doesn’t like SEC questions.
He appears uninterested when asked: Do you think about how you could be the leader on this team’s first-ever defensive line in the SEC?
“I mean, it’s just another conference,” he said. “That’s all it is to me.”
The part about him being the leader, the part about him finally being the player he was meant to be out of Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis, is another matter.
“He has a chance to be an impact player,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s very talented. For the first time since he’s been here he’s got to do the things that our team does to get better all summer long. Last summer he missed because he wasn’t enrolled at school. He missed out on winter conditioning, he missed out on lifting, our spring football, so all the things that help develop a young player, all the things that helped make Ziggy Hood a great player, he’s getting to do. I think he has high expectations for himself and he has potential to be really, really good. The good news is that he’s been working real hard at it.”
Richardson indeed thinks back to his days at Gateway, before he attended the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif.
On Thursday, he was finally on the proper schedule to which Pinkel alluded. He was in a black pullover jersey for the team’s first fall practice, 30 days before the season opener with Southeastern Louisiana.
The drill was a simple one, focusing on a game-time situation in which the ball was loose and the timing was prime for a defender to snatch it up. And when the ball rolled in front of him, Richardson chased after it, got on the ground and tucked it tight to his chest.
“This was actually my first full workout as a football player coming from high school to junior college,” Richardson said.
On the field beside Richardson’s, junior quarterback James Franklin was throwing again. His right arm could finally be seen in the form of a bow, in the process of bending and launching the ball forward.
After practice, Franklin admitted the pain in his shoulder began long ago, during the middle of his last season, which he ended with 2,865 yards passing, 981 yards rushing and 36 total touchdowns.
“It’s probably been over a year since my shoulder has been fully healthy,” he said. “So I’m really excited to get it back. … I’m excited to go all out here in the next couple days and see how it feels.”
On the other half of Franklin’s field, Elvis Fisher was making his return. He was back to the basics. He was in the left tackle position along the first-team line with his back straight, legs bent like Z’s, arms out in front of him, hands positioned on the teammate’s chest in front of him.
He was exploding upward, driving the mock defender backward.
“S---, Jack,” offensive line coach Bruce Walker remarked after guard Jack Meiners did the same to the pseudo-defender in front of him. “That’s the key to life right there.”
Dorial Green-Beckham, 2011’s consensus No. 1 recruit from Springfield, Mo., whose initials have often replaced the tail end of fans’ “M-I-Z-Z-O-U” chant, was getting his start to a career labeled and bound for greatness.
He lined up as the No. 4 split-end receiver.
“It’s like every freshman who starts at the bottom of the list,” Pinkel said. “So we're going to wait, we’re going to see how it goes, and let him come around like anybody else does.”
A field away, Richardson could relate to Green-Beckham — both were sought-after in-state recruits who chose their home state’s university.
“I told him, 'Stay humble, man,'” Richardson said. “'Stay humble, keep your faith and just talk. The camera’s here for you, man. Don’t be scared of it.'”
Really, Richardson could relate to many on the first day of camp, the starting line to SEC life ahead.
In a way, everyone was just beginning.