FOXBOROUGH — In order to play fast, Jordan Richards takes it slow.
After being limited to a special teams role in the season’s first two games, the Patriots rookie safety saw his first action on defense in Sunday’s 51-17 win over Jacksonville. Against the Jaguars, Richards played 30 of 57 snaps on defense, giving him his first taste of regular-season NFL football in a defensive huddle.
Because of the position he plays, Richards has added responsibility. So for someone who wants to react with quickness when the ball is snapped, what happens prior to the center-quarterback exchange becomes more important.
“In my short time here, I guess I’ve learned that it’s the stuff that happens pre-snap,” Richards said Tuesday. “You’re calm, you get your calls out, you identify the formation early, it allows you to play fast, as opposed to when you line up late, you’re getting calls out last minute, you don’t know if people heard you . . . that’s how you end up playing slow and timid, and you don’t end up playing well.”
Tuesdays are typically the players’ day off, but the Patriots aren’t on a typical week. One of seven teams still unbeaten at 3-0, they’ll practice Wednesday, then look forward to a weekend with no game, because they have their lone bye this week. The next game is Oct. 11 at Dallas.
Richards has had that game circled on the calendar, because it’ll be the first regular-season game that his parents (Terrence and Sharon) will attend. Terrence Richards was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Natick, and played football at Tufts. He moved soon after college to California, where Richards was born (Sacramento) and raised (Folsom).
Richards said his father, a defensive lineman, unsuccessfully tried to make the Patriots through a minicamp tryout.
“I’m trying to stay here a little longer than he did,” Richards said.
He already has, with plans on staying a good bit longer. The Patriots used a second-round draft pick on him this year, but couldn’t get him to Foxborough right away. Richards had to complete his senior year obligations at Stanford, graduating with a degree in public policy.
His academic achievements are almost as impressive as his football honors. Richards had a 3.31 grade-point average, was an academic All-American, and won the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Award. He’s proud of his work in the classroom, rightly so, and now finds himself tackling something new.
“Coach [Bill Belichick] mentioned today, taking it from the class to the grass. Whether it’s film, whether it’s calculus, chemistry, you have to be able to take what you learn from your teacher/instructor/coach, whoever it may be, and apply it when it’s your turn to do so, whether that’s on a test or on a field. The field, the game, is my test,” Richards said.
He didn’t get a chance to play on defense in either of the first two games, but saw the field plenty against the overmatched Jaguars. He had two tackles and made sure a pass to Allen Robinson wasn’t completed by pushing the airborne receiver out of bounds.
“Right when he got here he did a good job of studying on his own. He’s a really bright kid, he’s done a great job in practice, really throughout, did a good job in the preseason, also,” said Brian Flores, the Patriots coach who works with the safeties. “We just felt like it was a good opportunity, he earned his way onto the field. He went out there and did a decent job [Sunday].”
After watching the game film, Richards offered a mixed review.
“There are good plays and bad plays. It’s all about being consistent, making sure I get the right call out, playing fast, communicating with everybody else on the field, and ultimately do my assignment,” he said. “There were times I played well and got it done, and times I didn’t. Just trying to get those mistakes out of the way.”
That’s what being a rookie is all about. Fortunately for Richards, he has experienced teammates at the safety position who have offered their help. The other five safeties on the 53-man roster — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner, and Tavon Wilson — have a combined 19 seasons of NFL experience prior to this year. All but one of those seasons has been with the Patriots (Chung spent 2013 with the Eagles).
Richards might be the newcomer, but he’s making an impression.
“He’s a guy who works extremely hard. He focuses on everything going on in our safety room, and it was good to see him get opportunities and then take advantage of them,” McCourty said. “I thought he played well. He played with a lot of effort, made some plays running across the field and running plays down.”
Richards would love to build on that, but he’ll have to wait an extra week. Knowing that his parents are scheduled to be in AT&T Stadium — Richards has an aunt and uncle who live in Douglas, Mass., and have been to the games at Gillette Stadium — it will be worth the wait.
“It felt a little different to be on defense for the first time. Obviously, there was preseason stuff like that, but taking my first defensive snaps, I enjoyed the experience, for sure,” Richards said. “It’s a new defense for me, just like it is for every other rookie here and guys that are coming from other teams.
“Thing is, I haven’t played at this level, so I’m trying to learn from Dev, from every other safety in the room, all the defensive guys. They’ve been huge with that, helping me see things, what they’re thinking, explain the game how they see it. I can’t absorb all that information, but I’m trying to write down as much as I can, and slowly but surely, I’ll be able to handle more, whether it’s quarterback tendencies, game situations, and put it into my play.”
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.