The Playmaker

Multipurpose threat Keith Richardson of Long Reach gives opponents plenty to think about, making his presence felt on offense, defense and special teams.

Cover Story

November 16, 2005|By ALEJANDRO DANOIS | ALEJANDRO DANOIS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Growing up in Fayetteville, N.C., Keith Richardson had to beg to play in the rough touch football games in the park. When he was 8, his older cousins reluctantly let him on the field.

They soon regretted it.

The smallest kid in the bunch, Richardson ran circles around players twice his size. The same children that taunted him about his stature as he waited to be picked for a team were now silent. They were too busy gasping for breath as they chased the diminutive speedster across the grass.

Whenever he got his hands on the ball, something exciting happened. From that day on, no one argued that he was too small and might get hurt. They began to quarrel over whose team he would be on.

Based on his performance over the past two seasons, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior has every football coach in Howard County wishing he played for them.

A multipurpose threat, Richardson has demoralized opponents as a runner, receiver, defensive back and return specialist.

Along with 1,000-yard-rusher Josh Brown and last year's All-County Defensive Player of the Year Brian Taylor, Richardson has led Long Reach to an 18-3 record over the past two seasons. This season, Richardson helped Long Reach win its first county title in the school's 10-year history.

Richardson had played quarterback for an option team during his freshman year of high school in North Carolina. After the football season, he moved to Columbia and enrolled at Long Reach.

Lightning coach Pete Hughes was greeted by an unfamiliar voice when he picked up the phone one afternoon in the fall of 2003.

"His coach called me from North Carolina and said, `You're getting a very good football player,' " Hughes said.

During offseason workouts that summer, the Long Reach players got their first glimpse of the kind of talent that had arrived at their school.

In seven-on-seven drills, where the offensive skill position players work on their timing in the passing game against linebackers and the defensive secondary, Richardson immediately opened some eyes. He intercepted passes, ran by defenders with ease and showed an uncanny knack for making big plays, quickly accelerating into gears that most high school players don't have.

"When I first saw him in the seven-on-seven drills, I said, `This is a rare gem,' " Hughes said.

Hughes tinkered with the offense and assumed the play-calling responsibilities. He installed a single-wing system in an effort to maximize Richardson's unique skills from the wing-back position.

In his first game as a starter for Long Reach as a sophomore, Richardson burst onto the local scene by rushing for two touchdowns and returning a punt 50 yards for a score against Reservoir. As his sophomore season wore on, Richardson not only showed an exceptional feel for running in the open field, he also exhibited the natural instincts and soft hands of a gifted pass-catcher. Whenever his team needed a big play in a crucial situation, he was there to provide it.

His 21 touchdowns - 11 rushing, four receiving and six on kickoffs and punts - earned him an All-Metro second-team selection. Richardson also intercepted three passes while playing defensive back.

In last year's regular-season finale against Mount Hebron, the Lightning was clinging to a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter as the Vikings drove inside the Long Reach 10-yard-line. Playing cornerback and matched up in man-to-man coverage against Chris Eccleston, Mount Hebron's best receiver, Richardson soared to snag a one-handed interception in the back of the end zone to preserve the victory.

Against undefeated and heavily favored Gwynn Park in last year's state playoffs, Richardson scored all three of Long Reach's touchdowns - one rushing, one receiving and one on a 95-yard kickoff return - in the Lightning's 20-19 defeat.

This season, opposing teams have geared their defensive strategy toward limiting the frequency of his big plays. Alignments are stacked to minimize his effectiveness on the counter running plays that caused so many headaches for defenses last year.

Hughes has responded by sending him out of the backfield on a variety of short, medium and downfield receiving routes. Richardson also lines up behind center as an option quarterback in certain situations.

Even with the added attention, Long Reach's multipurpose threat has continued to excel this season.

Richardson helped spark the Lightning past River Hill last month in a game Hughes called "the biggest win in Long Reach history."

Trailing by seven points with less than two minutes left in the game, Richardson returned a punt 53 yards to River Hill's 19-yard line, setting up the game-winning score.

"He's certainly someone you've got to game-plan for," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. "We did a good job of shutting him down on offense, but ... he made the big play when they needed it."

Richardson has scored just one touchdown as a return specialist this season because teams are wary of letting him touch the ball. "They won't kick me the ball," he said.

In Long Reach's sole loss of the season, Wilde Lake did made the mistake of kicking to him, and he scampered 90 yards to the end zone.

Maryland, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia are among a host of schools interested in Richardson's services at the college level.

"In the 10 years I've been here, he's the biggest playmaker we've ever had," Hughes said. "No one's able to do the things he can on the field. He can score at any time."

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