COLUMBIA (AP) - Top Missouri recruit Sheldon Richardson is finally practicing with the Tigers after being cleared academically by the NCAA.
The junior-college transfer from St. Louis reported to practice Thursday more than 21â„2 years after committing to the school.
"Finally, finally," he said, smiling. "I'm just glad to be here."
Richardson was considered one of the top prospects in the nation when he signed in February 2009, but after failing to qualify academically he ended up at College of Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. He briefly committed to Southern California last fall before re-signing with Missouri.
He was cleared academically Wednesday after missing the first eight practices of the preseason. He reported at 310 pounds - a shade heavier than what his coaches would prefer - but immediately flashed the promise that once made him one of the nation's most high-profile recruits.
In a one-on-one pass rushing drill, Richardson bowled through starting guard Austin Wuebbels on consecutive attempts.
Richardson said offensive tackle Elvis Fisher good-naturedly called him the "paper champ."
Now, he's out to prove it on the field. While Richardson opened camp at the bottom of the depth chart, he figures to compete for an immediate role on a deep defensive line. The Tigers return senior starting tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno.
"We're excited about having him, and I know he's excited," coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's worked very hard for this opportunity."
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said he's wary of the expectations for a player he called the "most hyped player to ever come to the University of Missouri."
"If he was as good as everybody in the press made him out to be, we wouldn't have to put anybody else out on the football field," Kuligowski said. "I don't think anybody's that good. But he's got a lot of talent. We saw that early on. We think he's going to be a successful player here."
The St. Louis native was widely regarded as the top defensive tackle prospect in the country after a heralded high school career. An extraordinary athlete with speed, Richardson had 19 sacks and six defensive touchdowns during his senior year at Gateway Tech. He also played tight end and returned kickoffs.
Richardson missed all but two games with a wrist injury last season at College of Sequoias.
Missouri hoped Richardson would transfer over the winter and join the team for spring practices, but he struggled to gain eligibility. Richardson called the detour through junior college a "humbling experience."
"If anyone ever tell you humble pie tastes good, they are lying to you. Believe me," Richardson said. "(I was) big-headed when I graduated high school, went to juco, it leveled me out a little bit. It made me appreciate Division I a whole lot more."
Richardson has three years of eligibility remaining.
He hopes his winding path will end in the NFL. As for how long he plans to remain at Missouri, Richardson smiled.
"I'm here until I'm here," he said. "I don't know. I don't know what the expectations are. I don't know if I'll even play this year."