By the Associated Press
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Sheldon Richardson used to return kicks and punts in high school, which really wouldn’t be all that intriguing until you look at him.
The defensive lineman is 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, hardly fitting the prototype of a game-changing returner.
Sure, Richardson was just a bit smaller back then, but he’s still pretty fast for a big man. And that sideline-to-sideline speed excited the New York Jets enough to draft the former Missouri star in the first round two weeks ago.
“I was always the chubby kid in class that everybody picked on,” Richardson said during a break at rookie camp over the weekend. “I was, and I played with a chip on my shoulder. I still feel like I’m the same kid. I like to do what skinny guys do. (If they) dunk a basketball, I want to jump as high as (them) and dunk a basketball.
“I happen to be able to dunk a basketball because of it. I have fun. I’m a kid out there.”
And it certainly shows. Since being drafted, Richardson has been a bundle of energy on the field with a perky personality, and an inviting smile off it. He acts as if he’s been in the NFL for years, far from the timid approach that many rookies take.
Then again, it’s still just rookie camp and they haven’t worked with the veterans yet.
“These past few days, it’s been good,” Richardson said. “I can’t complain. I’m in the NFL, dawg. I’m embracing the moment. That’s exactly who I am. I don’t try to put any added pressure on myself. The media might try to stir up stuff and try to put pressure on me or whatever, but I’m already having fun.”
While nearly all the media attention has been on quarterback Geno Smith during rookie camp, Richardson has impressed his coaches with some solid practices.
“On defense, it’s pretty obvious who popped out there,” coach Rex Ryan said after the rookies’ first practice Friday. “I mean, Sheldon Richardson was good. I don’t want to put expectations too high, but, yeah, he was impressive to say the least.”
Richardson was a first-round draft pick – unlike Smith, who was a second-rounder. But the big defensive lineman wasn’t even the Jets’ first selection. That was cornerback Dee Milliner, who was taken No. 9 overall — four spots ahead of Richardson.
Milliner hasn’t practiced, and probably won’t fully participate until training camp in July as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Milliner, a two-time national champion at Alabama, has been working with trainers as he tries to be ready to compete with Kyle Wilson for the starting spot opposite Antonio Cromartie — a role once held by Darrelle Revis.
“We’re roommates right now and we’re cool, man,” Richardson said of Milliner. “Real laid back. Everybody’s trying to make the Darrelle Revis comparisons with him, and he’s not trying to be Darrelle Revis. He’s trying to make his own name. We’re all trying to make names for ourselves.”
So far, so good for Richardson.
After the Jets took Milliner at No. 9, they debated whether to go for Richardson or Smith at No. 13, the pick New York acquired from Tampa Bay for, yep, Revis.
While many expected the Jets to go for an offensive playmaker or a pass-rushing linebacker, Richardson was New York’s choice – a mild surprise.
“They said they wanted to add speed to the defense and improve the interior rush,” Richardson said. “I guess I was the perfect fit for them.”
On paper, though, it didn’t seem to be the case at first. The Jets have mostly played 3-4 style fronts on defense under Ryan, but will be looking to play more 4-3, especially with the depth they’ll have. Richardson joins a defensive front that includes two other first-rounders in Muhammad Wilkerson (2011) and Quinton Coples (2012).
“As a player, this guy is special,” said Jeff Bauer, the Jets’ director of college scouting. “We had a lot of scouts that looked at him and he just jumps off the tape. This is a defensive tackle who made plays 20 yards down the field, sideline-to-sideline, and his motor is non-stop. He’s going to make an impact here quickly.”
Richardson was a star at Gateway High School in St. Louis, racking up 19 sacks and also catching 27 passes for 541 yards and eight touchdowns as a tight end. And, of course, the kickoff returns.
“It’s just funny to me, man, to think about that,” he said, laughing. “That was stressful.”
Richardson went to the College of the Sequoias in California for two years, and then transferred to Missouri. He was a standout on defense for the Tigers, too, but his loquacious personality got him in some trouble during the week of the Georgia game last season, when Richardson said the Bulldogs play “old-man football.”
Georgia won 41-20, and Richardson apologized to Bulldogs coaches after the game — insisting he meant to say “old-school” football and not “old-man.”
He was also suspended for Missouri’s game against Syracuse in November for breaking an unspecified team rule.
Richardson has moved on from all that, calling them learning experiences, and is ready to show how serious he is about making his mark in the NFL.
“I’m still looking to improve my motor and my technique,” he said. “I want to make sure I fit the playbook and the playbook fits me, this way I can still do my thing and still play within the defense. That’s how I like to play.”