In 30 years as football coach at Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School, Frank Lenti has won 10 state titles, posted a 339-60 record, and sent players off to college such as Donovan McNabb, Simeon Rice and Jordan Lynch.
Last fall, Lenti had two notable prospects on his defensive line, Enoch Smith and Steven Richardson. The 6-2 Smith wound up picking Michigan State over Notre Dame. Richardson, who stands about 5-11, was sitting without a major college offer until the Gophers called.
“Enoch Smith is a great player; he looks the part,” Lenti said. “But I always said, ‘Steven’s a Cadillac.’ ”
The Gophers already are enjoying the ride. Richardson had three tackles in last week’s season opener against Eastern Illinois. He’ll get his first start Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, with Scott Ekpe out for the season because of a knee injury.
“It’s all cool to be a starter as a true freshman,” Richardson said. “But the way it happened is not the way I wanted it to be. The way [Ekpe] put me under his wing, I felt like he knew that this was going to happen to somebody.
“So I’m also playing for him, just to have his back.”
At 18, Richardson seems to have poise and maturity well beyond his years. Lenti traces it to Richardson’s parents, Steven and Valerie.
“There are going to be a lot of coaches in the Big Ten who are going to wish they had this guy,” Lenti said.
Lenti prides himself on not overselling his players to college recruiters, knowing that doesn’t do the player or the coach any long-term good. He and Gophers coach Jerry Kill have been friends for about 25 years. They used to run coaching clinics together.
In 2008, when Kill was coaching at Northern Illinois, he called Lenti one day, wondering why no Big Ten school had offered Lynch a scholarship. Lenti was just as astonished. Kill knew Lynch could run but wasn’t sure he could throw.
“[Lenti] chewed my tail end off,” Kill said. “He was right on that one.”
Lynch played one year for Kill at Northern Illinois and later blossomed into a Heisman Trophy finalist. So when Lenti touted Richardson, Kill listened.
Here was this player who had everything going for him except his height. Richardson weighed 290 pounds, could bench press 455 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds. His two sports were football and track.
“I did shot put,” Richardson said. “But in eighth grade, I ran the 4x100.”
Recruiting analysts would watch Mount Carmel, expecting to be dazzled by Smith, only to see Richardson outplay him. Richardson finished last year with 17 sacks, as Mount Carmel won a second consecutive state title.
“We always tell our kids, it’s not about how big you are, it’s about how big you play,” Lenti said.
Richardson has long arms for a player his size. Kill compares him to Aaron Donald, an All-America defensive tackle for Pittsburgh and a first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams.
“If you’ve got great strength, and you’ve got some longer leverage, I think sometimes height is overrated,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “He’s very fast for 290-300 pounds, and he has leverage to get off the blocks.”
Still, it’s an interesting transition for the Gophers. At one defensive tackle, they have 6-5 senior Cameron Botticelli. Standing beside him last year was the 6-6 Ra’Shede Hageman. With Hageman now in the NFL, the Gophers opened the year with Botticelli and the 6-4 Ekpe.
Now, enter Richardson.
“I was not recruited highly just basically on my size,” he said. “I didn’t look good on paper, but if you think about it, that’s what gives me the edge on everybody else, just staying low. I can’t help that.”
And he can’t wait to prove his doubters wrong.
“I was way under the radar,” he said. “I knew I should have been way up there the way I play.”