Each summer, before chinstraps were routinely buckled and carefully scripted plays were called, college football life took a brief backseat for Darryl Richard.
As he took time to prepare himself for the arduous tasks that awaited each impending fall in Atlanta, the Georgia Tech defensive tackle would escape big city life and return to the calm river country that he has always called home. Located just west of New Orleans and a stone’s throw from the bowels of the Mississippi River, Destrehan, La., was the place Richard flocked to see old friends and reconnect his past to the present. This summer, like the three that came before it, the Georgia Tech senior had the opportunity to return once again. On this particular visit, he saw something that Georgia Tech fans hope he remembers well Wednesday — images of LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
Digging his fingers into the springy artificial turf at the Georgia Dome this Wednesday evening, Richard will line up for the first time opposite the quick Jefferson, seeking to notch a big victory over his fellow Destrehan High School alumnus.
“When I went back home and I watched all 15 of their game tapes from last season at Destrehan, I talked to Coach Stephen Robicheaux and said that I can see (Jordan) is a game-manager, and he’s a play-maker, as well,” Richard said. “He’s one of those quarterbacks you definitely have to be wary of, and I think his junior or senior year, he definitely can wreak havoc on the nation. I believe it right now. He’s a threat.”
A true freshman, Jefferson is likely to start for LSU in Wednesday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl when the Tigers face Richard and the Yellow Jackets’ aggressive defensive line.
One of three Tigers on LSU’s roster who attended Destrehan, Jefferson helped the Fighting Wildcats to a Louisiana 5-A state championship a year ago. Now, one of three quarterbacks on LSU’s roster who has seen significant playing time this season, Jefferson is in line to make just his second career college start. With first-string quarterback Jarrett Lee battling nagging injuries and completion problems and backup Andrew Hatch working through an injury of his own, Jefferson is the favorite to take the early snaps against Georgia Tech. In six total appearances this year, he has passed for three touchdowns and run for another.
Despite the circumstances that have placed Jefferson on the field, Richard knows his teammates should not take the first-year signal-caller lightly.
“The biggest thing that I like about Jordan’s game is that he runs pretty well, and people see that, but he’s also a quarterback, and he can manage a football game,” Richard said. “Mobile quarterbacks give defenses issues because it’s hard to account for that guy. So we’re going to have to keep him in the pocket. I know they’re not going to want to keep him in the pocket, but we need him to sit in the pocket.
“I like the little fella, no question.”
Having graduated before Jefferson began playing at Destrehan, Richard never had a chance to see the young quarterback in live action. He did, however, play alongside Tigers sophomore cornerback Jai Eugene. Lifelong friends, Eugene and Richard grew up across the street from one another before playing high school football together. Separated in age by nearly one year, Eugene recalled looking up to the older Richard.
“We talk almost every day. He’s like a big brother to me. We’ve been together our whole life, basically,” Eugene told The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) last week.
Like any pair of close friends in competition with one another, Eugene and Richard have been launching playful verbal attacks to one another for this week’s game. For Richard, there were no terms set on the timing of the trash-talking. He started challenging Eugene as soon as it looked like the Yellow Jackets and Tigers would be playing in the bowl game.
“It was me (who started the trash-talking), no question,” Richard said. “and that’s surprising, that’s definitely surprising. Because that guy, he’s a mouth right there. I just said, ‘Y’all boys better be ready. Wear an extra pair of knee pads,’ that’s what I told him.”
With Georgia Tech’s option offense featuring a package of low-cutting blocks, Richard warned that LSU’s defensive players should watch their knees.
As his career winds down, one thing Richard has been sure to keep a close eye on in his time at Georgia Tech are his grades. The winner of the ACC’s Tatum Award and a national finalist for the Draddy Trophy, the senior defensive tackle has garnered plenty of on-field and off-field accolades. Having graduated earlier this month, Richard secured an MBA to go along with his undergraduate management degree which he received in three-and-a-half years. A proven leader in the classroom, he has earned the respect of his teammates.
“He sets the bar for all of us with all his achievements, and makes me want to strive to be where he’s at,” sophomore defensive end Derrick Morgan said. “Everybody looks up to him around here.”
Georgia Tech first-year head coach Paul Johnson noticed Richard’s leadership efforts early in the offseason and said his voice proved invaluable while the team implemented the new option offense.
“What the older guys did, especially Darryl and some of those guys, they said (to the younger players) ‘Hey, just relax. Let’s give this a chance. Let’s see how it’s going to work before we jump off the deep end,’ ” Johnson said. “Maybe some of this stuff they talk about, some of the increased accountability and the discipline, maybe some of it has been good for us. Discipline is something that everybody else needs.
“Darryl Richard doesn’t need to be disciplined. He’s pretty good about going to school and being where he’s supposed to be and doing what he’s supposed to do. But I think he saw that it (discipline) was good for the whole team.”