When the Gophers visit Northwestern on Saturday, it’ll be a Chicago homecoming for several members of the team. Coach P.J. Fleck is from the western suburb of Sugar Grove; the Huff brothers, safety Jacob and linebacker Julian, are from Bolingbrook; and cornerback Antonio Shenault is from Roselle, just to name a few.
But the trip to Chicago might mean the most to Steven Richardson, the senior defensive tackle who is winding up a productive career as a four-year starter while toiling in the trenches.
“I know he’s excited to get back to Chicago to play in this game,” Fleck said. “And I know that everybody wants to do it for Steven.”
Richardson, a soft-spoken 6-0, 292-pounder, expects a good turnout of family, friends and “even past teachers all the way from elementary school” at Ryan Field in Evanston. Though it’s his final collegiate game in the Chicago area, he’s here for business.
“I’m just focusing on finishing up these last games strong,” the former Mount Carmel High School standout said.
Strength and Richardson have been synonymous since he arrived in Dinkytown in 2014. He became a starter in the second game of his freshman season and has supplied a steady, run-stuffing presence ever since. Last year, he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the Gophers with 11 tackles for loss, making 31 tackles and adding seven sacks, a solid total for an interior lineman.
Richardson’s stats this season haven’t reached those of his junior year — he has 18 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and no sacks — but he has been productive.
“Steven Richardson is playing phenomenal — phenomenal,” Fleck said. “When you start to look at when people game-plan us, watch how many times they double-team Steven Richardson. It would probably be 90 percent of the time.”
Richardson is coming off a strong game in the Gophers’ 54-21 rout of Nebraska. He made four tackles, one-half for loss, and helped clog up the middle as Minnesota held the Cornhuskers to 2.1 yards per rush.
“Virtually every run play you see, there’s two guys who are getting a piece of him,” Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “He doesn’t complain, he does his job, does what we ask of him. When those opportunities arise, he’s going to make plays for us.”
Richardson takes pride in playing well against Northwestern, a school that shied away from him because of his height. After the Gophers’ 29-12 victory over the Wildcats last year in which he had two sacks and forced a fumble, Richardson tweeted, “Hey, @Northwestern am I still too short to play Big Ten football?” Looking back, Richardson said the tweet was “immature.”
Facing as many double-teams as he does, Richardson has had to adjust. “I just try to focus on one guy. If you beat one guy, then the other guy doesn’t matter,” he said. “It also works with having guys around you. The other D-linemen have been helping me out.”
The other linemen will tell you it’s Richardson who’s making their jobs easier.
“He absolutely dominates people,” said sophomore defensive end Carter Coughlin, whose 5½ sacks lead the team and 9½ tackles for loss rank second. Added Fleck, “What he’s doing is allowing other people, the Carter Coughlins, to have success, to have more sacks than Carter’s ever had.”
Though not the most vocal of leaders, Richardson makes his point when needed. “Steve’s kind of like a quiet giant,” Coughlin said. “… There’s guys that are always hooting and hollering, but when Steve talks and says something, you can hear a pin drop.”
Back home in Chicago one last time as a Gophers player, Richardson will let his play do the talking.