FAYETTEVILLE — Paul Rhoads, then Arkansas’ defensive backfield coach and this season also the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator, and Arkansas Head Coach Bret Bielema spent the last 12 games of last season lamenting that defensive back Kevin Richardson was injured and unavailable.
They spent the bulk of last Saturday’s game again lamenting that Richardson was injured and unavailable.
The senior starting nickel back from Jacksonville, also a staple on special teams and invaluable as an always ready reserve to fill in at either corner or either safety, played but a handful of plays during Arkansas’ 50-43 SEC season-opening overtime loss to Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Spraining his ankle during practice last week, Richardson just briefly limped into the Texas A&M fray when Josh Liddell, the senior safety moved to nickel replacing Richardson, literally required a brief breather after getting kicked in the stomach.
Richardson was missed at nickel but missed most, Bielema said, on special teams. Richardson is a regular on the kickoff team which had mostly stymied A&M until the fourth quarter.
A&M junior Christian Kirk, now a nemesis to Arkansas in the last three of the Aggies six consecutive SEC successes over the Hogs, broke one kick return for a 100-yard touchdown.
A&M’s Cullen Gillaspia returned 14 yards to the Arkansas 49 the short sky kick to avoid Kirk after after an Arkansas touchdown countered the Kirk touchdown to put Arkansas up 43-40.
Gillaspia’s return set up the Aggies in good field position from which to drive for the game-tying 43-43 field goal delivering A&M into overtime.
“ K-Rich is also a very valuable part of our special teams, all four phases,” Bielema said. “And as the game wore on, that kickoff coverage unit replaced four or five starters off the kicks that had been the kicks that had been first done. When you start getting into your second-string depth, offense-defense is one thing, but your second-string depth with kickoff in your four main special teams phases is very difficult.”
Richardson was cleared to return and expected “to rock and roll” Bielema said Monday regarding the defensive back’s status for Tuesday night’s practice and Saturday’s 11 a.m. nonconference SEC Network televised game against the New Mexico State Aggies at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Rhoads has big plans Saturday for Richardson vs. the Aggies visiting Fayetteville.
The plans also involve senior De’Andre Coley who moved into the safety spot that Pine Bluff Dollarway alum Liddell normally mans until last week replacing Richardson at nickel.
“Oh yeah, I anticipate him (Richardson) being back in the starting lineup as our nickel back and Dre and Josh being able to operate (with fourth-year junior starting safety Santos Ramirez) at a safety rotation. If we need Josh to give Kevin a break, we’ll be able to do that as well.”
Rhoads had big plans for Richardson combatting Christian Kirk, not only A&M’s star kick and punt returner but star receiver catching 5 passes for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns, one for 81 yards and the other the 10-yard overtime game-winner.
“ In that nickel spot, he was going to spend a good deal of time on Christian Kirk just where he (Kirk) was, but he wasn’t at a level that he could have done that as efficiently we needed him to,” Rhoads said. “Deep down, Kevin knew that. He is such a competitor. It really hurt him not being on the field with his teammates, but his sideline leadership was just exceptional.”
Apparently steamed for awhile when called “Steamboat,” Cole Kelley has learned to let that moniker float off his back because it channels his biggest Razorbacks opportunity to date.
Against Texas A&M, the 6-7, 268-pound redshirt freshman backup quarterback from Lafayette, La. remedied some of what has been Arkansas vexing problems on the goal-line by netting 21 yards on 4 needing short-yardage carries and faking the run and tossing a 2-yard touchdown pass to running back David Williams.
Kelley did all this as change of pace from senior quarterback Austin Allen operating out of a special offensive package that Bielema and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Enos call “Steamboat.”
“I guess after our first game, (the 49-7 rout over Florida A&M) somebody called him the Louisiana Steamboat somewhere, Enos said smiling. “He didn’t like it, so we named it after that, as a coach would do. Find a name he doesn’t like and call him that. Everybody calls him Steamboat now, I think. I’m sure he’s real happy I’m talking about this right now.”
Enos assumes the nickname comes from Kelley’s size more than his Louisiana heritage near the Mississippi River.
“I guess he’s a big barge moving down the river and you can’t knock him off course,” Enos said. “That’s the way I took it.”