The perfect microcosm of the Sam Richardson era at Iowa State can be found by looking at his cyclones.com roster page, beneath the stats and the personal bio.
There's a feed there that allows anyone to post comments, via Facebook, and the posts on Richardson's page are either on Nov. 18 or 19 of 2012, in the wake of his stellar performance off the bench at Kansas.
Wrote Richard Paul Brooks, Jr., "Who the heck is Sam Richardson? I guess we know now."
David Airy: "Let's see what he can do … in a bowl … looks good now …"
Marv Nygaard: "He's a future All-American and a possible Heisman candidate. Hope he looks good against Geno [Smith] on Friday!"
Since then: Crickets.
Let's report the news before getting into the hows and whys. Iowa State named Richardson, the redshirt junior, its starting quarterback for the 2014 season on Monday. The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Richardson, a native of Winter Park, Fla., will take the field in his No. 12 uniform Aug. 30 against North Dakota State.
Richardson beat Grant Rohach for the gig, but the greatest triumph came from within.
Allow me to insert myself into the story, briefly, not because I'm an expert in Iowa State's absence of rich quarterback play in its 117-year history or even its musical chairs (of arms) under Paul Rhoads, but because there's some value in an outsider's perspective.
I was at my parents' home in Austin the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2012, when I saw this Sam B. Richardson quarterbacking the Cyclones against West Virginia in what looked like the most miserable of conditions. The stream of consciousness follows: Oh, look, another Iowa State quarterback. Oh, yeah, this is the one who torched Kansas last week. You're nothing in the Big 12 without a quarterback and especially if you're Iowa State, which nearly every week is matched up against superior talent. Find that guy, though, and if he's really special? It's not an unfamiliar template in this conference for a singular talent at quarterback to buoy overlooked and overmatched teams and carry them to unexpected places — Robert Griffin III, Collin Klein, Todd Reesing, Chase Daniel, Michael Bishop, Seneca Wallace.
This is what the Cyclones needed.
In three contests (two starts) in 2012, Richardson, a redshirt freshman, completed 58 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and just one interception, while adding 233 yards on the ground, along with a score. Sick as a dog against Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl, Richardson struggled but still threw a touchdown and rushed for nearly 50 yards. Iowa State's well-documented quarterbacking carousel under Paul Rhoads had made its final revolution. Marv Nygaard was right: Sam Richardson was the future.
My first game on the Cyclones beat last fall, Sept. 14, Iowa State versus Iowa. For much of the contest, the Sam Richardson I remembered — or the Sam Richardson I thought I should be seeing — was not the Sam Richardson I was watching on the field. His passes were weak, he appeared timid, the timing with receivers was off. It was my first taste of Iowa State's inept 2013 offense, and I can't say I enjoyed it.
"He's not 100 percent," responded a reporter when I asked why Richardson had such trouble connecting on a deep throw.
The allure of Richardson when he inspired those Facebook posts two autumns ago was his youth: Here's a quarterback Iowa State can build around, can nurture, can turn into the star QB it needs to beat the more talented conference opponents. The shine wore off by mid-October last fall. Behind a beleaguered offensive line that redefined "turnstile," Richardson was running for his life on nearly every passing attempt. The play-calling of Courtney Messingham did him no favors. Rohach started the final four games and put on a show in the last two, winning twice — double Richardson's 'W' output.
Iowa State's future? Richardson couldn't even finish the year. His final line: 1,397 yards, a 55.3 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 21 sacks, just one rushing score, a sprained right ankle, a nagging groin issue (from a rumored moped accident), a bruised right thumb, a head-and-neck combo after a crunching from-behind hit against Oklahoma State.
"A nightmare," he said recently.
Richardson's best option, some mused, would be to transfer out of the program and go home to Florida. Richardson says that was never an option, but you couldn't have blamed him if he had left after the spring, when it looked like Richardson was Mark Mangino's third-string quarterback, behind Rohach — the new Richardson — and Joel Lanning, the bazooka-armed local kid. Richardson received few snaps in April's spring exhibition, most of them with the second- and third-stringers. He was trigger-shy and weirdly averse to even attempting to throw.
Grant Rohach was Iowa State's quarterback, it was decided by the fans and media. Richardson was damaged goods.
"I think there's a reason Grant took the first snap in the spring and a reason Grant took the first snap in the fall — because of what he'd done at the end of the season and what he did in the spring," Rhoads said last week. "Sam had further to go …
… and he's done that this fall."
A funny thing happened the second week of Iowa State's fall camp. Rhoads met with the media on Aug. 10 and reported no separation between Rohach and Richardson. Five days later, whispers of change. According to those in the program, Richardson had jumped Rohach — and it wasn't close.
Richardson, Rohach, Rhoads and quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy met with reporters Thursday evening. Richardson said he thought he was in a really good place. Rohach said Saturday's scrimmage would be important for him. Rhoads said he'd seen improvement from both and pointed out Richardson's improved strength. When asked if he had noticed Richardson playing with a chip on his shoulder after so many considered him down and out, Sturdy took a second to size up the question and said, "Sam's really focused right now. That'd be a good way to describe where he's at, mentally."
Mangino, the offensive wizard who's coached up quarterbacks since the late 1980s, made a point of breaking Richardson down to rubble in the spring, the only way he could eventually build him up. The 57-year-old Mangino might be more docile now in what can be considered his second coaching life, five years removed from his time at Kansas, but he's still a hardass.
Used to the more sedated Messingham, Iowa State's offensive players were thrown into Mangino's cauldron of expletives and energy from the beginning. In Iowa State's first spring practice, open to the media, Mangino, so displeased with the lethargic pace of a drill and the milquetoast effort of the student managers running it, took matters into his own hands. He grabbed a blocking pad and began smacking the Cyclones' tight ends to simulate the hit of a defender — first E.J. Bibbs and then Alex Leslie, who slowed to half-speed after the hit. Incensed, Mangino made Leslie run through the pad again. Stepping into the hit, Mangino whacked Leslie correctly. Like he had just hit a home run, Mangino flipped the pad into the air, and yelled to the managers, "Alright, you see how to do it? Take those mittens off!" Mangino was walking the other way before the pad fell to the ground.
"Spring was tough, getting used to Mangino and everything," Richardson said last week. "It's a different type of coach."
The Cyclones' quarterbacks were all adjusting to Mangino, but Rohach had momentum on his side. Lanning had naiveté. Richardson had 2013's failure suffocating him — and he couldn't help but wonder if it was the last chance he'd ever get.
His confidence, if not depleted, was drastically diminished.
Mangino can tell when something's wrong with a quarterback. And something in the spring was wrong with Richardson. He was slow in his reads and progressions in the pocket, patting the ball and spinning it in his hand, until he'd settle on an option he didn't love or just take off. On its own, this is a problem, inviting hurries, hits and sacks and stalling the flow of the offense, but moreso, it suggests a quarterback's uncomfortable in his own skin, that he's who's trying too hard, thinking too much, pleading with his right arm not to screw it up.
"Sam is a guy that I think learned some valuable lessons in the spring," Mangino said. "It took him a while to understand the culture of our offense and the way we do business."
There's no telling whenever, precisely, Richardson ditched the habits of indecisiveness, but it happened this month. Since then, he's been a different guy and a different quarterback.
"He's shown a much greater sense of urgency about his play," Mangino said. "He gets rid of the ball and that's really a big, big leap for Sam. … I told Sam it's OK to be laid-back when you're in your dorm room or on campus hanging out with your buddies, but when we get on the field, you've got to play like your hair's on fire. He's starting to understand that concept really well now."
Sam says he's a picky eater, but he's not timid around Leslie and Lonnie Richardson's dining table back in Florida. He's got a sweet tooth for cinnamon rolls and a penchant for steaks and his parents make it a point to send him back to Iowa weighing "a little more" than he did when he visited for vacation. Sure enough, Richardson bulked up to 225 pounds this spring, eying a playing weight of 220, which will not only make him more durable when the hits start coming, but will also have a big effect on his strength. Richardson's arm ability — once a major question mark — has improved. Chunks go longer, spirals are tighter. Richardson's running ability long gave him the advantage over Rohach, but as he's honed more control over his right arm, he closed the gap between the two in that respect.
"Grant's had more velocity to Sam prior to right now," Rhoads said. "[Now] I'd say they're comparable. … [Sam's] stronger, [has] more velocity on his ball because of that. He's throwing a more accurate ball right now.
"I'm not an offensive guy — I was a pretty good quarterback in junior high, though — from a real technical standpoint but there's a difference in a guy trying to wish a ball somewhere and passing it somewhere."
Facing a schedule many consider to be one of the most difficult in football and wearing bottom-dweller expectations, Iowa State will roll with Richardson. He doesn't need to be Todd Reesing, Michael Bishop, Seneca Wallace or Sage Rosenfels.
The Cyclones just want him to be the Sam Richardson who came cold off the bench the evening of Nov. 17 in 2012 and guided Iowa State to bowl-eligibility, throwing four touchdowns, to just four incompletions, in Lawrence. Focused, unruffled, no fear of failure. Fifty-two degrees, winds at 11 miles an hour, and it might as well have been a 7-on-7 tournament back home in Florida.
"To me," Rhoads says, "That's the game."
Write Richardson's parents in a joint email: "Sam has a lot of people that believe in him and he's worked really hard. His dedication has amazed us. It's so good to see him healthy, and most importantly happy."
Bigger, faster, stronger, better. Healthier, happier, more self-assured. Could Sam Richardson — finally? — be the quarterback the Cyclones have been waiting for?