Tuesday, August 23, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Former walk-on a versatile defender

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – Can’t recall Arkansas’ annual football media day ever evoking Razorbacks past to become sentimental.

One Razorback does  now, though. Arkansas junior defensive back Kevin Richardson of Jacksonville marked the Razorbacks’ Aug. 8 media day like an anniversary, which for him it is.

Before media met with coach Bret Bielema on last year’s media day, Bielema used a team meeting to announce that then third-year sophomore walk-on Richardson had just earned a full football scholarship.

“It was this time last year,” Richardson recalled on this preseason media day.  “Actually, it was today last year. I was telling everybody before this started that this time last year was the day I was put on scholarship. It’s something I’ll be reminded about every media day.  I’ll be thinking about that.”

So will his parents.

“They loved it,” Richardson said. “I have another sibling coming up here. My baby sister is coming up here, which will make five of us up here total.  I have got an older brother who is starting his Ph.d. I’ll be a senior. My younger sister will be a junior. My little brother is an equipment manager on the football team and my baby sister will be a freshman. The U of A is the place to be for us.”

Bielema, a former walk-on himself earning a scholarship as a University of Iowa nose guard, and former Arkansas defensive backfield coach now Texas defensive backfield coach Clay Jennings may never have been happier to reward a scholarship than when rewarding Richardson. Nor have they seen an entire team happier to see one rewarded.

“We announced K-Rich was on scholarship about a half hour ago and the place went up for grabs,” Bielema said at the time. Jennings likened it to more joyous hallelujahs than a Sunday revival.

“I have never seen so many guys jump up and down,” Jennings said.  “You would thought they were in church today when coach announced it. All those guys are excited for Kevin. I am excited for Kevin. This guy comes to work every day with his lunch bucket. Anything anybody else does he wants to do 10 times more. He is what being an Arkansas Razorback is all about.”

New Arkansas defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads already agrees.

Rhoads says Richardson’s effort is the best and his brain the brightest.

“He is arguably the smartest player on the defense if not smarter than half the coaches on the defense, too, in terms of what we are doing,” Rhoads said. “He is extremely intelligent. But you get that way by studying it. He is into his playbook. He is into the film and it shows on a daily basis.”
Richardson must have the biggest playbook on the defense to contain all he’s asked to do.

Last year Richardson was asked to do plenty. At several positions, he played every game for last year’s 8-5 Hogs, and started the last five, making 33 of his 44 tackles, including 10 each against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He intercepted one pass and broke up three.

“Kevin is a very versatile player and certainly will be active on most if not all special teams,” Rhoads said. “He is a cornerback for us. He is a nickel back for us. He is a dime for us and those are all three different positions. The nickel and dime are similar yet different. And he also could play some safety if we need him to. A guy that’s that marketable is very valuable to your football team.”  

Richardson is the starting nickel back in the five-defensive back packages the Razorbacks increasingly use with so many opponents relying on Spread offenses. And he’s right in the corner mix with D.J. Dean and Ryan Pulley behind starters Jared Collins and Henre Toliver.

And since he’s gradually gained from the 6-foot, 157-pounder walking on as a freshman in 2013 to a current 178, Richardson even has filled in with strong run-support at free and strong safety. Other than the defensive line and middle linebacker, there doesn’t seem a spot that defensive coordinator Robb Smith won’t play him.

“Yeah, he’s been our slot corner, “Smith said. “He’s also played out on the edge as a corner in some base defense. Paul has been able to use him as a safety as well at times.

“We have got some really good players rotating through at that corner and K-Rich really has that niche at the nickel and then can do some other things to help us.”