The way defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski describes it, the play was like a streak of lightning, which occurs when all the atmospheric elements align just right, when a cloud becomes filled with negative and positive charges and when the interaction with the earth’s surface creates a great spectacle.
Kuligowski was on the sidelines Saturday when senior cornerback E.J. Gaines forced a fumble on a Central Florida receiver. Junior tackle Sheldon Richardson — who registered nine tackles and a sack earlier in the afternoon — pounced on it.
“It was like a flash,” Kuligowski said. “Like, a flash, and all the sudden, he’s on top of the thing. When a guy’s 297 pounds moving that fast, he’s going to cause some havoc.”
Richardson was sitting in a fold-up chair, but perhaps he was still moving too fast when he let his words slip after his team’s season-opening win against Southeastern Louisiana. He referred to Georgia, the upcoming opponent, as a team that played “old-man football” and a media storm followed. The Tigers lost that game and Bulldog players held up signs afterward that read, “grown man football” and Richardson was cut off from reporters for three weeks.
During that time Richardson, a St. Louis native, played himself to the level that was expected from the nation’s No. 4 recruit from Gateway High School three years ago. He’s displayed the speed he once showed when he lined up as a tight end on the offensive side of the ball at Gateway.
“I’ve said it before: he’s very, very gifted,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “I’m really proud of him as he’s grown into the program.”
Richardson spent two years at the College of the Sequoias, a community college in Visalia, California. He played a reserve role for Missouri last year and now he’s catching the eyes of pro scouts.
He’s asked about the NFL Draft talk that’s risen and he’s quick to the question.
“There’s draft talk about me?” he said, surrounded by local media Monday. “I don't even get on the Internet really. I just stay to myself, stay to the game film. I could be good one weekend and bad the next weekend and there’s draft stock no more. I just stay humble.”
He’s reserved now, calculated, as if tamed. He responds in a way his coach would likely approve.
“I don’t ever talk about the NFL,” Pinkel said. “There’s nothing in the NFL that has to do with helping our team get better.”
Over the summer, Richardson made his personal expectations known.
“I had, what, three sacks last year? I plan on getting 10,” he said after the first day of Missouri’s fall camp on Aug. 2. “I had, like, eight tackle for losses? I plan on getting 15 to 25. That’s how I feel.”
Now, he’s making his answers team-oriented. Pinkel said he noticed Richardson often rallying the defense on the sidelines. Kuligowski said Richardson’s play "speaks for him, so guys listen to him.”
Richardson put the leadership tag elsewhere.
“I follow (senior linebackers) Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden,” he said. “Those are who I follow. Those are our defensive captains.”
He recalls a recent film session with his defensive teammates.
“Coach Kul talked to the line when we went back and looked at South Carolina tape about hustling, what effort really looks like,” Richardson said. “He kinda said I put on a clinic tape. But I want everybody to run like that …”
But the focus is on him now, just him. The spotlight has found Richardson again, whether he was ready for it or not. His emergence, whatever it took to develop, has blatantly arrived. He’s second on the team with 33 total tackles and leads with assisted tackles and quarterback hurries.
“Him being in the football program, him being here since summer, since two-a-days, him being around his teammates, (it’s) a lot of combination of things,” Pinkel said.
Richardson’s fumble recovery on Saturday came at a time when UCF was trying to regain the lead trailing late in the fourth quarter. The ball was there for him and he hurried to it.
“That was a relieving play, man,” he said. “That was the game-winner. I got off the field and got my breath back.”