Nu’Keese Richardson was the most popular man in college football in February 2009, the subject of a bitter tug-of-war between Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin. Five years, three colleges, and one arrest later, the Patriots are extending him a career lifeline.
The Patriots are holding a three-day rookie minicamp this weekend, which serves as an orientation of sorts for the team’s draft picks and undrafted free agent signings. Like many teams, they also extended invitations to several unsigned players, and Richardson was a fascinating name to pop up.
That Richardson, 23, is even getting a tryout is a testament to his skill and drive. Richardson squandered an opportunity five years ago.
In 2009, Richardson was a highly recruited quarterback/receiver who helped win three state championships at Pahokee High, a football powerhouse in an economically depressed area outside West Palm Beach, Fla. He was often compared to Percy Harvin, a star playmaker at Florida, and he was expected to sign a letter-of-intent to play for Meyer at Florida that February.
On signing day, though, Richardson shocked everybody — even his high school coach and family — when he instead chose Tennessee and Kiffin, who lured him away with the promise of starting right away.
Kiffin consistently used Richardson as a way to needle Meyer and Florida, and put outsized expectations on him, comparing him to Reggie Bush, whom Kiffin coached at Southern Cal.
But Richardson didn’t last a season in Rocky Top. He and two teammates — including safety Janzen Jackson, who played for the New York Giants in 2012 — were arrested for armed robbery in November 2009 after they tried to rob a Pilot gas station in Knoxville — a station that happened to be owned by Tennessee booster and current Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
Richardson was booted from the team, and eventually pleaded guilty to the charges, getting probation but avoiding jail time.
He struggled to get his career back on track, enrolling at and then dropping out of Hampton University, and was unable to find a place to play from 2010-12.
But Richardson stayed in shape, and finally got an opportunity last fall with Pikeville, an NAIA school in Kentucky. He caught 36 passes for 556 yards and two touchdowns in nine games, and also had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown.
It’s certainly noteworthy that the Patriots would give a chance to a kid with an armed robbery arrest on his record the day after Aaron Hernandez was indicted on two more murder charges. But Richardson has stayed out of trouble since his arrest in 2009, and his high school coach, Blaze Thompson, chalks up the incident to immaturity.
“The truth is he only had one issue,” Thompson said. “It was albeit a serious one at Tennessee, but that was his only issue.
“We’re really proud that God has blessed him with this opportunity. He is a physical specimen. He’s only had one real issue outside of football that I know of, and I think he’s deserving of a second opportunity.”
Richardson, 5 feet 10 inches and 170 pounds, had 4.3 speed in high school and has been working out in the West Palm Beach area for five months, hoping for a shot from an NFL team. The Patriots called this week, and Richardson flew up to Boston Thursday night to try out this weekend.
He’s still a long shot to win a roster spot — here or elsewhere.
“He’s gained some weight and acting dedicated,” Thompson said. “We’re really happy for him. I think he’ll make the most of it.”Follow Ben Volin on Twitter at @BenVolin.