Sam Richardson’s revived pocket presence paramount to Cyclones’ success


Redshirt junior quarterback Sam Richardson looks for a receiver against West Virginia on Nov. 29 at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones fell to the Mountaineers 37-24. Richardson had 275 passing yards in the game.

Max Dible

At a recent practice, ISU coach Paul Rhoads stood behind the play, watching intently as a surging pass rush descended on his quarterback Sam Richardson.

What he witnessed next was a culmination of years of painstaking work, and a combination of instinct, talent and an acquired fearlessness.

Richardson side-stepped the rush, moved up in the pocket and confidently delivered a strike to a receiver down the field.

“When (offensive coordinator) Mark (Mangino) arrived two years ago, (Richardson) would have looked at that rusher,” Rhoads said. “He would have had no idea what was going on downfield.

“Yesterday, he had no idea what was going on around him other than that there were bees buzzing around his head, and he had to slide and do what coach (Todd) Sturdy had coached him to do.”

Stand and deliver.

That’s the mandate for Richardson as he enters his fifth and final season as the quarterback of an ISU offense that Rhoads described as being “always throw first.”

That’s not to say that Richardson can’t scramble, or that he can’t do so effectively. The opposite is actually true. In 11 games played last season, Richardson rushed 125 times, racking up 421 yards and three touchdowns. He led the Cyclones in rushing twice, against North Dakota State and Baylor, tallying 99 yards against the Bears.

“You never know what we’ll do with those legs,” pass game coordinator Todd Sturdy said. “He can run. I think a big part of his game is extending plays with his feet, and he has the ability to hurt a defense and keep the offense on the field. Move the chains, Sam will do that with his feet.”

The skill is an invaluable one to the captain of a spread offense that frequently creates space for the quarterback to run. But nevertheless, Iowa State lost both games at Jack Trice Stadium in which Richardson was the team’s leading rusher. And at nearly 11.5 rushing attempts per game, he perhaps took off too frequently and, at times, out of fear of pass rushers closing in around him.

Injuries also played a role in that mindset, decimating the ISU offensive line and wide receiving corps for much of the season, which limited Richardson’s downfield options while robbing him of valuable seconds required to locate the few targets who weren’t sidelined by injury.

This season, however, both position groups, which allow Richardon to remain in the pocket and promote a pass-first attack, have returned to more or less full strength.

A continuity now exists of both Mangino’s offensive system, entering in its second year of implementation at Iowa State, as well as the players who comprise it. And the results are beginning to emerge on the practice field.

So much so, that while Sturdy hinted Richardson’s number may be called on occasion as a rusher in 2015, the quarterback has spent little time during fall camp working on called run plays or on scrambling.

Instead, the focus has been all about hanging tough in the pocket and delivering the ball with accuracy — two traits that Rhoads said tower above all others where effective quarterback play is concerned.

“I think it’s just respect for the pass game,” Richardson said. “It’s hanging in there on those third and fourth reads. It’s hard to do sometimes, especially when you’ve got a rush coming at you, but it’s just looking to find those guys rather than (taking off).

“I’ve taken a few hits here and there, but it’s part of the job and you’ve got to hang in on those routes. Those are the big plays, the ones you’re waiting on (the receivers). And once you see them come open, you’ve got to deliver the ball regardless of anything in front of you.”