Jordan Richards breaks up a pass in last year’s Stanford-UCLA game. Richards was taken 64th overall by the Patriots. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
If you’re a defensive back who leaves college with a seal of approval from Duane Akina, you’re doing something right.
In more than 30 seasons as a defensive coach at the college level — including stints at Hawaii, Arizona and Texas — he’s carved out a rep as one of the best in his field. In his 13 seasons at Texas, he coached 14 All-Big 12 defensive backs and two Thorpe Award winners. Ten of his former Longhorn defensive backs played in the NFL in 2013, including Earl Thomas, Quentin Jammer, Aaron Ross and Michael Huff.
And after spending a year with safety Jordan Richards — who was taken 64th overall in the draft out of Stanford by the Patriots earlier this month — he believes that Richards could be a part of that same grouping.
“In my first week here, when I was going through things, I heard a lot about him. I watched 12 games, and thought I had a feel for how good he was an how important he was to the defense,” said Akina, looking back at the start of his first year with Stanford. “I quickly found out that if Jordan made a call and somebody else thought it was a different call, well, we should just do what Jordan said.
“He played a huge role in helping me out with the language. A lot of the things we did in practice and Texas, we also do here at Stanford, but when it came to making specific calls in the right situations when it comes to checks and things like that, I was blessed that Jordan was there,” Akina added. “I made sure he called out every defense. It got to a point in the meeting room where I would ask the guys a question, and I would have to say, ‘Jordan, you can’t say a thing,’ because everyone was just waiting for Jordan to make the call.”
The 5-foot-11, 211-pound Richards was a first-team All-Pac 12 in 2014. In four seasons with Stanford, he played in 54 games, with 152 tackles (13 for a loss) with one sack and nine picks. His smarts, versatility and open-field tackling skills were all part of what made him an absolutely integral part of the Stanford defense.
But the numbers were not on par with some of the other high-profile Day 2 draft possibilities, and that was one of the main reasons some were shocked to see Richards go at the end of the second round — most every draft expert had him pegged as a Day 3 selection.
While he acknowledges that his loyalty to his guys occasionally blinds his feelings, the selection of Richards didn’t faze Akina.
“He went exactly where I thought he was going to go — I thought he was a second- or third-round pick,” Akina said of the 22-year-old. “People have no idea. Everyone wants to measure how tall guys are or how fast they are. And some measurables are important. But at the same time, if you understand that Jordan doesn’t run a 4.37 like Earl Thomas, that’s OK, but you also have to understand that he plays at 4.37 speed because of his intellect.
“In a system like the one in New England that will put stress on safeties and their abilities to make the right call at the right time, you just can’t go out and find guys like Jordan. You just can’t find guys like that who make plays like that and have that decision-making ability like he has.”
Akina has worked with thousands of players over the years, but when asked for a comparison, he was quick to put Richards with some of the other defensive backs he mentored while helping to create a legacy at Texas that later gave the label “Defensive Back University” to the Longhorns football program. But given a few more moments, the name he went for wasn’t a defensive back, but another unheralded defender who became great through film study, preparation and work ethic who he had the opportunity to coach when he was a defensive coordinator while at Arizona in the early 1990s.
“I equate Jordan to Tedy Bruschi, who I worked with at Arizona. Tedy was too short and too slow, and he came from Arizona. Arizona? That’s not Ohio State,” Akina said with a laugh. “But he became a great pro because of things you can’t measure in black and white.
“Look, the bottom line is that the Pac-12 is as good a conference as you’ll find, especially for a defensive back, because it’s filled with triggermen. He’s been looking at some of the best quarterbacks in the college game the last few years, and he did an excellent job. To me, it’s no surprise he went where he did.”
Looking forward, Richards will enter a system where he’ll have an opportunity to gain playing tine right out of the box. Initially, he will likely make his bones as a special teamer, but at the same time, he will challenge the likes of Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung for playing time at the safety spot. An ability to fill multiple roles in the secondary will serve him well in his quest to get on the field as soon as possible, and even though he’s was pegged as a box safety by some draft pundits, Akina says, well, the Patriots will likely think outside the box when it comes to utilizing his skill set.
“We asked our safeties to do quite a bit. He has ability and flexibility — he’s not just a box safety. He can be a physical guy. He can line up in the slot and play man coverage,” Akina said. “It’s an insult to call him a box safety. As a collegian, he worked hard on all aspects of defensive back play, including man coverage. He’s been engaged in a lot of concepts.”
Ultimately, Akina believes his background with those multiple concepts, combined with his smarts and tenacious attitude when it comes to film study and prep work, will end up justifying the second-round selection of his latest prodigy.
“I’ve coached some safeties over the years,” Akina said, “and I think everybody in New England will be pleased with Jordan.”