FAYETTEVILLE — During the 2016 preseason, then brand new Arkansas defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads extolled Kevin Richardson’s versatility value to the Razorbacks’ secondary.
Richardson displayed what Rhoads discussed making seven tackles as a nickel back and cornerback during the Razorbacks’ 21-20 season-opening victory over Louisiana Tech at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Unfortunately it marked Richardson’s only game for 2016. He tore pectoral muscles during that game, a season-ending injury that didn’t allow Richardson playing football again until spring practice.
So during the 2017 preseason practices that Coach Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks began on July 27 it seems Rhoads is avidly determined that he and Richardson make up for lost time.
“Kevin Richardson has to be on the field somewhere for us” Rhoads said.
So even before Rhoads in July implemented the nickel package with Richardson listed first-team nickel, Richardson, the fifth-year senior former walk-on from Jacksonville, was all over the secondary nearly all the time those first two days of mandatory non-contact practices.
“We haven’t installed our nickel package in yet,” Richardson said. “That will be primarily where I play, but right now it’s some it’s some corner and some free safety. Coach Rhoads told me to be prepared for whatever. I just embrace wherever he wants me to play.”
He’s done a lot of embracing during the preseason. Because he’s been busy enough practicing at cornerback and safety even before slotted at nickel.
Must be difficult simultaneously preparing to be primary throughout the secondary
“It’s not really difficult,” Richardson said. “It’s just being in condition. You’ve got to be in condition to play all of those because it will be reps with ones at the nickel, twos at corner and threes with the free safety. You got to be in condition to do things like that. Coach Herb (strength coach Ben Herbert) does a great job conditioning us.”
The conditioning isn’t just about speed and strength but endurance, too, Richardson said.
“Coach Rhoads talked about being in football shape,” Richardson said. “There is a difference being in football shape and being able to carry your pads.”
To have been a 150-pound walk-on muscled up to 185 pounds on a 5-11 frame that played every game on special teams in 2014 and every game on special teams and as a defensive backup jack of all trades in 2015 takes tremendous extra effort.
Richardson’s teammates noticed. They elected him and junior safety Santos Ramirez as defensive co-captains.
Rhoads knew why.
“I think, even in today’s age where guys have a tendency to brother-in-law each other too much and take it easy on each other, they recognize somebody who is not afraid to speak,” Rhoads said. “And Kevin is not afraid to speak. They’re intelligent words, words that make sense to the kids and elevate them. Anytime somebody elevates somebody else, they’re displaying leadership.”
Richardson said his parents ingrained him to speak when needed.
“I was always taught to be myself,” Richardson said. “So you know I’m going to be blunt with you if there is something wrong. If something needs to be addressed I’m going to tell you about it. Coach B lets us speak to the team and sometimes I call people out if I feel there is something they should work on. That’s something I feel a leader should do. Sometimes it’s tough love when you’ve got to speak to somebody.”
Richardson admitted sometimes it takes prudent words if you are an 185-pound captain and are closest at hand when 6-3, 286 sophomore defensive end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim of Hope and sophomore 6-5, 298 left offensive tackle Colton Jackson of Conway “skirmished” like during the second preseason practice.
“They are bigger guys than me,” Richardson said. “It’s kind of hard with bodies that big. I can’t physically do anything but I try do what I can. It might require some different language but I do what I can to make them stop.”
Although Richardson was seventh on the 2015 in tackles with 44 playing all over the secondary and on special teams before his injury induced one and done 2016, Bielema explained to a bewildered SEC Media Days audience back on July 10 in Hoover, Ala. why be he brought Richardson along with heralded senior third-team Preseason All-SEC quarterback Austin Allen and Preseason All-SEC first-team/consensus All-American candidate senior center Frank Ragnow.
“Kevin Richardson is a former walk-on and just really embodies everything I believe in,” Bielema said. “He’s a little undersized, under-recruited, underdeveloped coming out of high school but we presented an opportunity for him to walk on. Really in the first two weeks I knew we had something. Probably one of the most intelligent football IQ players I’ve ever been around.”