Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson remains confident on and off the field

Story and photo by Joe Vozzelli

Defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson (34) and Kony Ealy (47) pursue Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly (10) on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Faurot Field. Richardson and Ealy combined for 13 tackles in Missouri’s 24-20 victory. Photo by Joe Vozzelli.

During Monday’s media day, Sheldon Richardson had a chance to talk about his play on the field for the first time since his “old-man football” comments.

The 6-foot-4-inch 295-pound defensive tackle made those comments about Georgia’s style of play after Missouri won its season opener, saying he turned off the Georgia-Buffalo contest because it was “old-man football.”

Missouri played Georgia the following week and the Bulldogs took care of the Tigers with a 41-20 win.

However, Richardson has apologized for those comments. After the loss to Georgia, he walked up to Georgia coach Mark Richt and delivered an apology.

Even with the apology, Richardson was held out of media days for almost a month. But during that time, the junior defensive tackle hasn’t needed to say much.

Richardson has been one of Missouri’s most consistent defensive players all season. Richardson has 33 tackles, the highest total among defensive lineman in the Southeastern Conference.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has commented several times about Richardson’s maturity and development as a player.

“He’s in better shape, he’s quicker, he’s stronger, he’s faster, he understands the defense better,” Pinkel said.

Pinkel had an explanation for why Richardson has developed into a more consistent player this season. Richardson participated in summer workouts, something the defensive tackle wasn’t able to do last season, missing those workouts because the NCAA hadn’t cleared him academically.

As a result, Richardson wasn’t as sharp last season, amassing only 37 tackles in 2011, four more than he has for the Tigers through five games this season.

Richardson also admits he was a little out of shape last season. He weighed 315 pounds for much of last year before trimming almost 20 pounds during the offseason.

Pinkel has noticed a difference.

“His movement for a guy that weighs 295 pounds and how he runs is really amazing,” Pinkel said.

Opposing teams have noticed, as well. Richardson faced double teams and triple teams from the interior of Central Florida’s offensive line in last week’s 21-16 Missouri victory.

Richardson has been in the middle of things at key moments in the game this season, even if those places on the field are away from the usual office for a defensive lineman.

Defensive lineman are usually asked to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, mostly in the form of sacks and tackles. Richardson has done that: he has two sacks and four tackles for loss in Missouri’s last three games.

But, Richardson has also made plays down the field.

Late in the fourth quarter against Central Florida, Richardson was seven yards from his usual office and pounced on a fumble around midfield after defensive back E.J. Gaines stripped Knights wide receiver Jeff Godfrey of the ball. Richardson’s fumble recovery allowed Missouri to run out the clock and eek out a close win against Central Florida.

Richardson said he’s seen Missouri’s opponents focus more on blocking him lately.

“I’m starting to get a lot more heat early in the games, he said. “They’re starting to respect me more.”

Richardson’s play this season has spurred questions about the defensive tackle’s draft stock.

When he was asked if he’s thinking about the NFL Draft next April, Richardson had an interesting response.

“There’s draft talk about me?,” Richardson joked before saying, “I don’t get on the Internet really. I just stay to myself and stay focused on game film. I could be good this week and bad next week then, the draft stock is no more.”

Richardson, though, hasn’t wavered in his self-confidence. He thinks of himself as one of best defensive tackles in the SEC.

Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski had high praise for the junior. Kuligowski, who’s in his 12th season at Missouri, has coached the likes of Aldon Smith and Ziggy Hood, who were both drafted in first round of the NFL draft.

Richardson’s talents “as high as we’ve had on the defensive line,” Kuligowski said.

Missouri’s defensive line, Richardson included, will be tested again Saturday at Faurot Field as Missouri attempts to win its first SEC conference game. Vanderbilt tailback Zac Stacy is averaging 7.4 yards per carry, the third highest total in the conference.

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