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Shaq attacked: Arizona cornerback confident amid struggles

It's been this kind of season of cornerback Shaquille Richardson, not exactly in position to tackle Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle. Photo by Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats cornerback Shaquille Richardson smiles and nods at the question. Yep, it does seem like everyone is against him right now.

“I guess so,” he said, “but I hope they don’t get comfortable doing it.”

Richardson, a sophomore, has taken the brunt of the blame of Arizona’s poor start on pass defense — and no one is suggesting that the criticism is unfair. Getting beat or missing tackles … it’s all right there for everyone to see.

But what is it that is always said about cornerbacks? They have to have short memories, and an attitude bordering on cockiness is never a bad thing.

“I don’t think my confidence has gone down because I started to do bad,” Richardson said. “A lot of people wouldn’t think that, but I don’t think my confidence has gone down.”

That confidence will be tested again Saturday as Stanford’s Andrew Luck — the prototype NFL passer — tries to embarrass the Arizona passing defense on ESPN for a second consecutive week.

Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden threw for 397 yards last week against the Cats, twice hitting Justin Blackmon for touchdowns on fade patterns against Richardson.

“He’s had to play against Blackmon, and be pressed up against Blackmon,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters.

“The biggest thing to me is he accepted that challenge, and he didn’t shy away from it. When he had a chance to be physical he was. So that was encouraging. He can rest easier now having played against the best he will see all season.”

But Stanford wideout Chris Owusu, while perhaps no Blackmon, is plenty good, too. And Richardson still has to go up against all manner of top receivers later in the Pac-12 schedule.

“I feel like I’m over the hump, but I still have to go at every opponent expecting to see their best,” Richardson said. “I just can’t say that since I guarded Blackmon that everything else is going to be easy. I have to work hard to actually do it, even though I know I can.”

Shaquille Richardson

Shaquille Richardson

Arizona allowed NAU and Oklahoma State to complete a ridiculously high 78.48 percent of their passes (62 of 79), which is the worst mark in the country. The Cats have talked about the need to be more aggressive, to compete better when the ball is in the air.

“We have to work on doing that every play and not just some plays,” Richardson said. “You can tell against Oklahoma State. Sometimes we were aggressive, and we were very good. And some times, we weren’t as aggressive.”

Richardson’s struggles come after a promising true freshman season. He had the look of a future star. He’s listed at 6-2, 180 — super size for a cornerback. Coach Mike Stoops, during 2010 fall camp, said Richardson was “as good a corner as I’ve coached at this young stage.”

He started three games and was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes and making seven tackles against Washington State.

But a shoulder injury slowed his development in spring ball, allowing sophomore Jonathan McKnight to emerge as a starting cornerback ahead of Richardson. When McKnight suffered a torn ACL less than two weeks before the season-opener, Richardson became the starting left cornerback, opposite Trevin Wade.

Right now, Arizona has little other choice than Richardson; true freshman Cortez Johnson is the backup at both cornerback spots.

“When he plays physically, and he plays technically sound, he’s lights out,” Walters said of Richardson.

“I think these first two games have shook off the jitters, so to speak, a little bit. He has shown flashes of being a really good player. … He’s a good kid and competes hard. I can work with that.”


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