Look around major college football, and you see the size. A 6-2, 275-pound offensive lineman isn’t considered large anymore. If you want to play on a Big Ten line, it behooves you to be at least 6-3 and weigh 300 or more.
And those interior defensive linemen battling those offensive road graders? If you’re not 6-2 to 6-4 and close to or exceeding 300 pounds, good luck.
Short men, it appears, need not apply. But nobody told that to Steven Richardson.
A Gophers senior defensive tackle entering his fourth year as a starter, Richardson is making the most of his generously listed 6-foot frame. Much of that is because he is a compact 292 pounds, powered by tree stumps for thighs and a motor that has made him one of the better defensive linemen in the country.
“I’m glad he’s on our side, let’s put it that way,” said Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who is coaching Richardson for the first time. “He’s made strides even from the spring to where is now in terms of learning the system and mastering the system.”
Richardson enters his final season with the Gophers on the watch lists for Outland Trophy (outstanding interior lineman) and Bronko Nagurski Trophy (national defensive player of the year). He’s coming off a junior season in which he had 31 tackles, a team-leading 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. His presence helped the Gophers hold opponents to 3.4 yards per rush, which ranked among the nation’s top 20.
What’s also impressive is the steam he’s getting from the analytics crowd.
Pro Football Focus lists Richardson second to Houston sophomore Ed Oliver as the highest-rated interior defensive player. And Richardson’s 41 quarterback pressures from last year are the most among returning Big Ten defensive tackles, PFF reports. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, with 34, is a distant second. The website also lists him as No. 4 on its list of top returning Big Ten players.
Richardson credits much of his success to the fact he is short compared with other linemen.
“The height I use to my advantage, because a lot of D linemen have a hard time just getting low,” he said. “That’s the main key to being a good defensive lineman, and I’m already built that way.”
Added Smith: “He plays with unbelievable leverage. … They call him a ‘Stove’ for a reason.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck sees an improving player.
“He’s playing at higher level than I’ve seen him play at,” Fleck said. “He’s leading a lot more, opening his mouth a lot more, making other people around him better. … He’s taking care of his body at an all-time high, and you’re seeing the finished product on the field.”
Proving them wrong
Richardson making an impact on the field is nothing new. Nor is people underestimating him.
At Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, he helped lead the Caravan to back-to-back state championships in 2012 and ’13. Yet the Gophers, under then-coach Jerry Kill, were the only Power Five conference team to offer him a scholarship. His other FBS offers came from Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
His lack of height, of course, had a lot to do with that.
Richardson speaks softly and deliberately off the field, but he let it be known there was a bur under his saddle regarding the recruiting process after last year’s game against the Chicago area’s Big Ten team.
After Richardson had two sacks and forced a fumble in the Gophers’ 29-12 victory over Northwestern last year, he deliciously tweeted: “Hey, @Northwestern am I still too short to play Big Ten football?”
But he says he’s put that type of motivation in the past, instead focusing on the upcoming season.
“With these coaches, you’re not allowed to really have a chip on your shoulder,” he said of Fleck and his staff. “You just play your best ball and everything will work out for you.”
Richardson made an immediate impact with the Gophers as a true freshman, starting 12 of 13 games and collecting 23 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks. He increased those totals to 26 tackles, eight for loss, and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore, and had 31 tackles, a team-leading 11 for loss, and seven sacks last year on the way to third-team All-Big Ten honors.
He estimates he was double-teamed about “95 percent of the time” last year. “You do [get frustrated], but it’s just part of the job. You just stay low and get through it.”
Richardson has adjusted to the new scheme and philosophy from Smith. Honing his hand-fighting skills has been a priority.
“His teaching style is a lot like Coach Fleck, very energetic and demanding,” Richardson said. “But what I learned from him is getting my hands up quicker.”
Along with his performance on the field, Richardson has stepped forward to become a leader for Fleck.
“It’s an entirely different way that he coaches,” Richardson said, comparing Fleck’s style with that of predecessor Tracy Claeys. “It’s a lot of energy he’s brought to this complex. … It’s definitely brought out a leadership role for me.”
Sophomore defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere sees the changes in Richardson’s role as a mentor.
“Steve Richardson has been a leader since I got here, but he hasn’t been as vocal until now,” DeLattiboudere said. “Coach Fleck really tries to get you to pull the vocalness out of you so you can be a leader both by your actions and how you speak to other people.”
And Richardson will put those leadership skills to use for one final season with the Gophers.
“It’s definitely gone fast. I’d love to go back to my freshman year. I always think about it — the memories on the football field and off it,” he said. “I’m going to cherish this last fall camp and everything that goes into it. … With the way everybody’s working out here, I see some great things coming.’’