By the Associated Press
As a defensive tackle, Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson enjoys the limelight whenever he can get it.
Thanks to his actions on and off the field this season, he’s got it.
With 33 tackles through five games, including nine in Saturday’s 21-16 win at Central Florida, Richardson leads all defensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference. He is Missouri’s second-leading tackler, and is tied for second with five tackles for loss.
“I play with a desire to win,” he said. “I feel like nobody else can match my intensity. Every play is my play to make.”
Last month, Richardson made headlines when he described No. 5 Georgia’s style of play as “old man football.” He apologized to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt after the Bulldogs beat Missouri and was suspended from talking to the media for four weeks.
“I got my notoriety up a little bit,” said Richardson, who thinks his words were overblown and doesn’t regret using them.
In his three games since playing Georgia, the 6-4, 295-pound junior has 25 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, one forced fumble and recovered another. His efforts have helped Missouri hold opposing offenses to 333 yards per game, 30th in the country and 47 yards fewer than last season.
Coach Gary Pinkel attributes Richardson’s success to experience he’s gained by attending summer workouts – things he wasn’t able to do while waiting to be cleared academically in 2011, his first year with the team.
“He’s in better shape, he’s stronger, he’s quicker, he understands the defense better,” Pinkel said. “His movement for a guy that weighs 295 pounds and how he runs is really amazing.”
Next up for the Tigers is Vanderbilt and Zac Stacy, whose 7.4 yards per carry is third among tailbacks in the SEC with at least 40 carries. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said the game is slowing down for Richardson, who has started all five games this season after only starting twice last year.
“He’s a great player, and he’s energetic,” cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “And he just brings something special to the defense that just gets us all going, kind of gives us our mojo. It’s great having him on our side of the ball.”
Behind his wall of self-confidence, Richardson stays grounded by thinking about his family. After growing up in St. Louis, the highly coveted athlete signed a letter of intent in February 2009 to play with Missouri at the urging of his parents, Michael and Zelda, to stay close to home. When he failed to qualify academically, however, he attended the College of the Sequoias in California for two years, learning less about football and more about living on his own and paying bills.
He decided against playing for Southern California in favor of returning to Missouri, again at the advice of his parents.
“Seeing my folks smile at the games, win, lose or draw,” Richardson said. “I know they have my back, full support. That’s what I live for, for real. And I refuse to go out there and let them down, at any time.”
Considered an NFL prospect, Richardson said he will leave Missouri if he can crack the first round, citing financial reasons.
“His physical talents are as high as we’ve had on our defensive line,” said Kuligowski, who’s in his 12th year at Missouri. “That was never really a doubt. It was just a matter of him doing it. And so now you’re starting to see him do it.”