By Jim Wexell
Being a psychology major, Steelers rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson had a pretty good idea why Mike Tomlin quizzed him relentlessly during spring practices.
"Coach Tomlin's a great coach, and great coaches give every player what they need," said Richardson, the Steelers' fifth-round draft pick out of Arizona. "But it's not like he only helps me out on the field. He helps everybody else out, and I noticed that, too. I appreciate him helping me and coaching me."
At any moment this past spring, before any snap -- and often the very first snap of any scrimmage -- Tomlin could be heard hollering out, "What are we in, Shaq?"
"He wants to heighten my awareness and bring up my intensity and make sure I'm wired in and ready to go," Richardson said in early June.
Were Richardson's answers correct?
"He caught me sometimes," Richardson said. "But most of the time I got it right."
Maybe Tomlin figured he had to get Richardson ready. After all, in a draft in which the Steelers were said to have needed help at cornerback, all they got was this fifth-rounder with a questionable past.
Out of the rough streets of Compton, an inner Los Angeles suburb, Richardson was recruited by UCLA, but dismissed soon thereafter because he and three others, including Seattle rookie Paul Richardson, stole a backpack out of a locker.
Shaq went to Arizona, where Mike Stoops was on the coaching hot seat, and in his first game Richardson intercepted two passes against Washington State and was named the PAC 10 Player of the Week.
"Who was the quarterback?" Richards repeated in asking his locker-mate.
"Jeff Tuel," said Steelers teammate Robert Golden. "He played for Buffalo when E.J. Manuel went down last year. He wasn't too bad."
Golden was another cornerback/safety type at Arizona. The two spent two years together in the five-man Arizona secondary before Golden joined the Steelers.
After Richardson's impressive debut, he started three games as a freshman before becoming a three-year starter under Stoops and then new coach Rich Rodriguez.
In his four seasons at Arizona, Richardson intercepted 10 passes and broke up 37. His finest game may have been against Oregon last season, when on the first play Richardson spectacularly tipped a Marcus Mariota sideline pass back onto the field for an interception. On the last defensive play, Richardson intercepted Mariota to clinch a major upset.
The first play seemed to be the obvious highlight. "It was on SportsCenter so it was highly regarded," Richardson said of the tip-back. "It felt regular to me. It's instinctual football. But when I saw it, I have to say it did look nice."
Richardson said he liked the last play just as much. "You start and finish the game," he said. "You want to start something off well and you always want to finish. Coach Tomlin preaches finishing a lot."
Richardson obviously feels a close association with Tomlin, and why shouldn't he? It was Tomlin who took a chance on Richardson. Even though Richardson had experience, size (6-0.1, 194), speed (4.43 40/6.95 3-cone at his pro day) and a 38 1/2-inch vertical jump, he wasn't invited to the combine. But Tomlin checked with Lake on Richardson's background and got a "thumbs up" from his defensive backfield coach.
"I moved forward from all of that and learned from my mistakes. I'm a better person now," Richardson said of his freshman foul-up. "Coach sees that, and I think everybody else does, too."
Richardson started slowly in the spring, but clearly made progress. He's currently in Florida working with Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay at Tom Shaw's Performance Camp.
"I need to come back better for training camp," Richardson said. "I thought I did well in the spring. A couple practices in I was more intent on making sure I knew the call. It wasn't just coach asking me anymore. Everybody else was asking for the call. If anybody wanted the call, it was 'Ask Shaq,' because I'm always paying attention now."
Yep, a little psychology can go a long way.