KNOXVILLE -- Nu'Keese Richardson was one of the last year's most highly prized football recruits for several reasons.
The 5-foot-8 University of Tennessee freshman does standing backflips as easily as most people snap their fingers. His short legs and narrow hips almost always move in rhythmic unison, making the South Floridian hard to catch in the open field.
"Sometimes guys don't see him until he runs by them," Volunteers All-America safety Eric Berry said after one of Richardson's better preseason practice performances. "That little dude can move."
Richardson's problems so far have had nothing to do with people catching him. Catching the ball and catching on to UT's offensive system have been the biggest bugaboos. But going into Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener against defending national champion and top-ranked Florida, his head coach swears he'll keep getting chances.
Coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday that Richardson still was his primary punt-return specialist except for near the goal line, when the Vols will use veteran Dennis Rogan.
Richardson has bobbled several punt catches in practices, scrimmages and games, and many thought his puzzling decision to try returning a muffed punt from the end zone last week would temporarily the ice the experiment.
"You have to have confidence in (freshmen), and they have to feel your confidence," Kiffin said. "If you start pulling all your younger guys because you're going into a hostile environment, I don't know that that really shows what you believe in your team. Are they going to be perfect? No, they're not going to be perfect. We're going to try to make them perfect, the young guys, but they need to play.
"We're in our first year as a program. We're going into our third game. If you have a philosophy that you're going to play your younger players that you know eventually are going to be great players, there's going to be some pains in that. You're going to have to understand that, or you can just go back to the old-school theory and sit them on the bench and say, 'They're not ready because they're too young.'
"But that's now how we operate."
Richardson, who reneged on a longtime commitment to Florida before switching to UT on national signing day, hasn't strayed far from the minds of Gator Nation. His late school switch, and Kiffin's controversial comments that Florida coach Urban Meyer "cheated" while trying to Richardson back in the fold, sparked a controversy that still lingers in many Sunshine State corners.
Kiffin's negatively perceived comments about Pahokee, Richardson's hometown, infuriated many in the town, and local administrators temporarily barred UT's coaches from entering the talent-rich high school before the situation smoothed.
The soft-spoken Richardson smiled when asked what type of reception he expected this weekend in the Swamp.
"Not a nice one," he said. "I know that."
Richardson always has maintained that those closest to him supported his decision, despite Pahokee's reputation as a Gators stronghold. And he didn't wilt when strangers littered his Facebook.com page with insults and threats.
"I knew that committing to Tennessee and being from Florida and de-committing from Florida, it was going to draw a lot of attention to me," Richardson added. "I was prepared for it."
Richardson cited an immediate, strong connection with UT's new coaching staff and a better opportunity for early playing time as reasons to turn down Florida. His roommate, fellow freshman wide receiver Marsalis Teague, also switched from the Gators to the Vols -- though Teague, a West Tennessean, was praised around home for his decision.
The two laugh at the days when Richardson called Teague to pester him about "jumping in the boat" with Florida's signing class.
"We talk about (Saturday) a lot," Richardson said. "This is one of the games we're most ready for."
Kiffin said he was disappointed that Richardson didn't get involved offensively in last week's 19-15 loss to UCLA, but one of the freshman's special-teams touches was nearly cataclysmic. He missed a bouncing punt near his own 10-yard line, corralled it in the end zone and tried to return it -- rather than take a knee.
"I didn't know I was in the end zone until I looked down and saw the checkerboards," Richardson said. "That was a bad decision on my part. Once I came to the sideline, I just had my head held down and was ready to just take it like a man."
Richardson thought he'd given UCLA two points via safety, but UT retained possession at the 20-yard line via touchback because the freshman never controlled the ball until he'd reached the end zone.
Kiffin, ever the optimist, said he hasn't hesitated to stick with Richardson. That could have something to do with the Vols' continued point-scoring woes.
"We've got to do a better job blocking for him," Kiffin said. "We've been very close. It's the same old story ... one block away from hitting a big one, where we can really see his speed, and see him run.
"We're excited about him this week."
Richardson could see Saturday duty also as a situational shotgun quarterback, but work there has somewhat slowed until he gets a firmer grasp on his receiver responsibilities. Richardson played more quarterback in high school, so simple receiver tasks such as alignment and route-running have been works in progress.
What's always been clear, though, is his potential to gain large chunks of yards in a hurry.
"Nu'Keese is a special player," Kiffin said. "He continues to develop in our offense and eventually will be a great player here."