KNOXVILLE -- Freshman wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson said homesickness combined with his introverted personality to cause his absence from last Sunday's Tennessee football practice.
Richardson returned to the field after conversations with friends, family, teammates and coaches, though, and he responded with his best week of practice and best game of the season.
The playmaker from South Florida caught three passes for 54 yards and his first collegiate touchdown in the Volunteers' blowout win over Memphis.
"It ended up being a good week," the soft-spoken Richardson said after Sunday night's practice.
Richardson reiterated that homesickness has been an issue all season, but he and UT coach Lane Kiffin steadfastly denied that the player ever spoke about transferring closer to his beloved Pahokee home.
The 5-foot-9 wideout and return specialist said he hadn't opened up to teammates and coaches about the severity of his homesickness, which didn't help the other unspecified "issues" he'd had the past few weeks.
"At first, I thought it was just going to be a minor issue," Richardson said. "But later, as things went on, I started feeling real homesick, and from then on, it basically just grew. I was talking to my peoples, but that wasn't enough. I always want to be around my peoples, because I'm a family guy.
"I'm just the type of guy that I don't talk a lot, and I don't express my feelings to other people a lot. A lot of guys didn't know what I was going through. I wouldn't say it was frustration. It was just some problems that I was going through, and I had a lot of my mind. I just wanted to take some time off and get a clean head."
Richardson's roommate, fellow freshman receiver and former fellow Florida commitment Marsalis Teague, helped the situation last week by insisting his roommate think about the big picture. Teague asked Richardson to only seek advice from friends and family who selflessly cared about his best interests.
And those people -- the aunts who raised Richardson, and his high school coaches -- told the player he should tough it out in Knoxville.
"But finally, me and Marsalis just talked one night, and he talked me into just talking to my peoples more and seeing what they had to say," Richardson said.
"And they wanted me to keep dealing with it."
Richardson said he also hoped to have a bigger role in UT's offense this season, but Kiffin wasn't as warm about that problem. The Vols' brash boss told the player that he'd only get the opportunities he'd earned in practice, and that he hadn't earned as many chances lately.
"I had talked to him about, 'The only way you're going to play really well and get more opportunities is if you're really consistent in practice, and you have too many breakdowns in practice,'" Kiffin said. "And he accepted that, and he came out and had by far his best week of practice, and then he went in and played extremely well."
Richardson said he's just begun to scratch the surface of his potential, but that getting personal problems off his chest and seeing Saturday's results will help him in the near future.
"Every week, I feel like I'm getting better and learning the system and going out and competing at the highest level," Richardson said. "I feel like I'm doing a good job, and I'm getting more comfortable."
Richardson said he appreciated Kiffin understanding his personal problems and leveling with him about his on-field results.
"It just taught me that he's always going to be there for us, no matter what we're going through," Richardson said. "For a player, knowing that your coach is always going to have your side, that's something good."
Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams said last week that the team didn't hold Richardson's one-day absence against him.
"Everybody goes through something when they first get to school -- I mean, everybody does," Williams said. "I'm a fifth-year senior now, and I've been through a lot of things that guys don't see off the field behind the scenes, so I understand. Coach Kiffin and him, they'll talk about it and they'll work through it. But for the most part, it's nothing new. Every player, as soon as he signs and gets dropped off, something happens.
"Sometimes guys get homesick. Sometimes guys just don't like the area. It could be a variety of reasons, but I think it's nothing too big."
Kiffin hopes to have Richardson-like success this week while dealing with another disgruntled player, sophomore tailback Tauren Poole.
Poole, who looked like a significant contributor with several strong preseason camp performances, has been the fourth man -- and therefore the odd man out -- in UT's backfield, with 71 yards on just seven rushes.
Kiffin said he and Poole had an "issue" on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter, and he dismissed the player to the locker room with time left on the clock.
"I didn't like the way that he handled the issue," Kiffin said. "I met with him today, and we're moving on."
Kiffin said Poole, a valuable special teams performer who recovered a Memphis kickoff return fumble, would be available for Saturday's game at Ole Miss. He said Saturday was his first problem with Poole.
"He's worked extremely hard in practice," Kiffin said. "I don't expect kids to agree with our decisions on playing time. I expect them to think that they're the best guy at their position. But they need to respect those decisions and not let their feeling show, and just keep practicing hard and playing hard when they get an opportunity."
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