Return to bowl game provides Vanderbilt's Richardson a rare opportunity

Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 10:06pm

 

Pounce first. Ask questions later.

That sort of thinking led to Sean Richardson’s first and only career touchdown. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

A true freshman playing in the Music City Bowl in 2008 — Vanderbilt’s first postseason appearance in 26 years — Richardson took off down LP Field during a punt early in the third quarter against Boston College.

It was a dream come true for Richardson, who grew up watching the Tennessee Titans and admiring Steve McNair, Eddie George, Kevin Dyson and Frank Wycheck.

“I could just go on,” Richardson said. “I always watched them every Sunday, and I always wanted to be a Tennessee Titan.”

This was the next best thing — and it got better. As he neared the goal line, he focused on either tackling the Boston College punt returner or downing the ball inside the 5-yard line.

Neither happened.

As the ball hit the turf, Richardson thought he saw it deflect off the knee of BC’s Paul Anderson. So he jumped on the football in the end zone, fending off a pack of others, including teammate Joel Caldwell.

“We joke around about it. He said I took his touchdown,” Richardson said. “I came out of the pile with it.”

After the officials conferred as to whether the ball really touched Anderson, the touchdown signal went into the air and Vanderbilt had its first lead of the game.

The score proved to be the difference-maker in Vanderbilt’s 16-14 victory. In fact, Richardson has scored the school’s only touchdown in a bowl game over the last 29 years.

“Being able to have an impact in that game was phenomenal,” Richardson said. “I was just excited. Every time I got back out there I was hoping some other crazy stuff would happen and I would be able to make another play. It was great.”

The memories from that historic game — Vanderbilt’s first bowl win in 53 years — come flowing back to Richardson as he and his teammates prepare to play Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.

A native of Linden, Ala., he has been a model of consistency in the secondary since coming off the bench in 2008. Playing either strong or free safety, he has started 30 straight games. In 2009, he tore a tendon in his thumb, requiring surgery. Still, he didn’t miss a contest.

He entered 2011 as the Southeastern Conference’s top active tackler among defensive backs. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder added 58 stops this fall — second-most on the team — and raised his career total to 251.

The optimism and promise of 2008 quickly faded for the Commodores as a 10-game losing streak spilled over from 2009 to 2010. Injuries and inconsistent play loomed large as Vanderbilt returned to the role of the league’s cellar dweller.

“It was challenging, but at the same time it made us better,” Richardson said. “We grew from it and we got stronger. What people didn’t realize was that we were a lot better than a 2-10 team. We lost some close games and some breaks didn’t go our way. But we kept battling, and we always had each other’s back.”

That togetherness was tested when Bobby Johnson retired in the summer of 2010 and Robbie Caldwell resigned last December. Along with them went much of the coaching staff, including the coach who recruited Richardson, Rick Logo, and his position coach, Jamie Bryant.

“I had been there with them for the past three years and built that strong bond, and it is like a family. You never want to see your family leave,” Richardson said. “Of course, it was sad and you’re hurting. But, at the same time, it is a business and life goes on. You have to be able to handle adversity.”

So Richardson and his fellow seniors pounced on their final college season. With the enthusiasm of a new and young coaching staff, the seniors led the way during a 6-6 campaign that featured several close SEC losses — a big difference from the previous two years.

As a reward, Richardson and the eight other seniors will become the only players in school history to appear in two bowl games.

“It is wonderful,” he said. “All the hard work we put in is finally paying off. ... We helped set the foundation for what is to come because Vanderbilt is on the rise.”

 

 

 

Senior Legacies 

Sean Richardson wasn’t the only freshman who played a part in Vanderbilt’s Music City Bowl victory in 2008.

All nine seniors on the 2011 squad played in that game. Here is a look at how they contributed on that New Year’s Eve night and what they have done since.

• Brandon Barden, TE

Music City Bowl — Made his 10th straight start of the season, catching one pass for four yards.

Career — He was the nation’s top freshman tight end with 28 catches. He started more than 40 games and as a junior led the team in receptions (34) and receiving yards (425).

• Kyle Fischer, RT
Music City Bowl — Made his seventh straight start of the season, contributing to an offensive line that allowed just one sack in the game.

Career — After being named to the All-SEC Freshman team, he has shown his versatility, switching from guard. One of five captains, he earned All-SEC honors this season and blocked for 1,000-yard rusher Zac Stacy.

• Tim Fugger, DE
Music City Bowl — Came off the bench and assisted on a tackle.

Career — Developed into one of the league’s most dangerous players off the edge, with 10.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles in his career. An All-SEC selection, he leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.

• T.J. Greenstone, DT
Music City Bowl — Finished up an All-SEC Freshman season with four tackles, one for a loss and one quarterback hurry.

Career — Injuries limited the past two seasons and the former captain lost his starting job this season. He recorded 11 tackles in eight games.

• Casey Hayward, CB
Music City Bowl — The reserve broke up two passes and had three tackles.

Career — He has started 36 straight games — the longest by any current Vanderbilt player. The All-SEC and All-American player picked off a team-high five interceptions this season, giving him 11 for his career and tying him for sixth in school history.

• Chris Marve, MLB
Music City Bowl — Started the 13th game of the season, leading the team with 10 tackles.

Career — He entered the season as the SEC’s active career leader in tackles (306) and has stayed on pace. His team-high 84 tackles have pushed him into a tie for the eighth-most all-time. The captain arguably is the undisputed leader of the defense, if not the team.

• Larry Smith, QB
Music City Bowl — Made his first career start, completing 10-of-27 passes for 121 yards. He marched the Commodores to the Boston College 25-yard line late in the fourth quarter, setting up the game-winning field goal with 3:26 left.

Career — The two-year starter struggled with inconsistencies, with 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in his career. Jordan Rodgers replaced him as the starter halfway through this season.

• Udom Umoh, WR
Music City Bowl — Led the team with three catches for 29 yards.

Career — He started 22 games during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Drops continually haunted him, and he has just three catches this season. He is still a key contributor on special teams, coming up with a big block on a punt late against Georgia.