In 2009 and 2010, the Vanderbilt Commodores football team finished 2-10. Since they play in the brutal SEC and they have higher academic standards than every other institution in their conference, no one blamed them. In 2011, new head coach James Franklin moved things in the right direction, guiding the team to an appearance in the Liberty Bowl.
Vanderbilt won six games while pushing Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee to the brink in tough one-score games. Most of the improvements for Vanderbilt came on the offensive side of the ball, but they were much better in pass defense as well. According to CFBStats.com, their opposition passer rating went from 140.52 in 2010 to 110.73 in 2011. They improved their opposition passing accuracy from 63.3 percent to 54.2 percent and grabbed 19 interceptions in 2011 to 2010's nine picks.
The anchor of this pass defense was Casey Hayward, a 2nd round pick of the Green Bay Packers and the No. 3 ranked cornerback on some NFL Draft boards because of Janoris Jenkins' character concerns, but he wasn't the only star in that secondary. He was aided by safety Sean Richardson, who the Packers signed as an undrafted free agent. He's known more for his tackling than his coverage abilities, and the Packers plan on utilizing those skills.
As much as the Commodores' pass defense improved, their run defense improved more. They went from allowing 4.46 yards per attempt to 3.56 yards per attempt, and they cut rushing touchdowns from 25 to 12. A lot of that had to do with Richardson's play stepping up in support.
Richardson is a battering ram of a safety, listed at 6'2", 220 pounds on the Vanderbilt athletics website. In an attempt to get faster and show off his coverage skills, he dropped to 216 pounds for the combine and 214 pounds for his pro day. He ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine while doing 22 bench press reps and recording a vertical jump of 38 1/2". At his pro day, he did a 20-yard shuttle in 4.19 seconds and the 3-cone drill in 6.90 seconds. He's a workout warrior.
He's also probably going to get a little bit slower -- but hopefully not too much slower -- in the short term. That's because the Packers reportedly have plans to convert Richardson to linebacker.
When more teams ran 4-3 defenses, it was common practice to convert slow, hard-hitting safeties who played in the 225 pound-range in college to outside linebackers. Now that more teams run 3-4 defenses, pass rushing defensive ends are filling outside linebacker voids, not safeties. The same applies for the Packers, who are going to use 270 pound 4-3 end Nick Perry as an outside linebacker. If Richardson is making the move to linebacker, he's going to play on the inside.
Small, quick inside linebackers can be successful in a 3-4 defense, given a few criteria. One, the nose tackle in front of them can eat up blockers. That's certainly the case with B.J. Raji. Two, they're excellent at tackling for their size. That's certainly the case for Sean Richardson.
In 2010, when running backs were regularly getting to the second level against the Commodores, Richardson led his team in solo tackles with 67 and total tackles with 98. In 2011, with Vanderbilt doing a better job in the trenches, he finished second on the team with 63 total tackles.
In the video below, you can see Richardson wearing both No. 38 and No. 21. His highlights from his early years feature mostly special teams plays, but the few clips of him making tackles in space on quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are extremely impressive.
While other teams were overlooking Richardson because he doesn't have NFL-level coverage skills, Ted Thompson might have found a diamond in the rough at 3-4 inside linebacker. Can Richardson put the pressure on Terrell Manning and D.J. Smith?