Watching football prospects play another sport is a common practice for college recruiters. But it’s rare that scouts are first drawn to a prospect for football because he impressed them in another sport.
Yet that’s how Malik Richardson caught the attention of college recruiters last spring while running track for the Lakewood High School team in Sumter, SC. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder was coming off his first season as the varsity quarterback when the program’s new football coach, Larry Cornelius, insisted Richardson join the track team.
“He had no choice in that,” Cornelius said. “I made him run track because, even though he had good speed, he needed work on his first couple of steps. So I got him on the track team and working with our sprinter’s coach in the (starting) blocks.
“Malik wound up qualifying for the state and had a personal best of 10.71 (seconds in 100-meter dash). That’s phenomenal for a kid who is 6-4, 205 pounds and had never run track. When schools started to see his legit numbers in track a lot of schools really started to recruit Malik hard (for football).”
The first of those was The Citadel last April, followed by Wofford, Furman, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina and, finally, East Carolina in early June. Richardson accepted the Pirates’ offer just over a month later, joining the recruiting Class of 2019 as an athlete.
The “athlete” tag is a legit one for Richardson, even though he’s played mostly quarterback during his Lakewood career.
Richardson led Lakewood’s junior varsity to a 5-3 finish playing quarterback as a freshman in 2015, then took over the starting job for a varsity squad in 2016 that ran a version of the Wing-T offense. It turned out to be a frustrating season for Richardson and the Gators, who finished 0-10.
Enter Cornelius, who had developed a high-scoring offense at Mitchell County, GA, High before being hired to turn around the slumping Lakewood program. Cornelius immediately had new plans for Richardson after their first meeting.
“Without question he jumped out physically,” Cornelius said. “He was every bit of 6-4. Sometimes people list kids at 6-4 and they are really 6-2. But he’s a legit 6-4. And he was the first guy I identified as a leader.
“But he had not been properly coached the past couple of years just because they weren’t sure what to do with him. When we got here they were running a form of the Wing-T and he’s at quarterback. But when you have a kid like that he needs to be involved in the offense running and passing, and not just handing the ball off.”
Richardson began to blossom as a junior under Cornelius, completing 85 of 165 passes for 907 yards and seven scores while also rushing 132 times for 769 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Gators are off to their best start in recent years this season at 3-3. Despite sitting out one game with an injury, Richardson completed 35 of 83 passes for 421 yards and a touchdown, plus ran 107 times for 575 yards and six scores.
During a 52-7 loss against Flora, Richardson completed 9 of 13 passes for 169 yards and ran for 109 yards on 21 carries.
Richardson ran for 201 yards in a season-opening 35-19 victory against Colleton County, including a 53-yard touchdown jaunt.
“We were moving the ball that game, but not getting any big gains,” Cornelius said. “So we called an empty set and a draw play for him. He broke through the front line and it was off to the races. Nobody could keep pace with him once he broke that front line.”
Cornelius believes Richardson has the ability to play quarterback at the next level, but expects East Carolina will try him at another position.
“I think there are a lot of directions East Carolina could go,” Cornelius said. “He’s an anomaly. All the colleges that recruited him knows he’s big and fast. But what do you do with a kid like that? It almost presents more problems than solutions.
“He’ll play where ever they want him to play. But he’s definitely improved at quarterback. Me, personally, I don’t think that’s out the window. But the knock on him as a quarterback is he’s slow getting the ball out. He has a long delivery. But with the style of offenses teams are using in college these days he’s kind of the prototypical guy you want running those schemes.”
One of the reasons Richardson eventually accepted East Carolina’s scholarship offer is how they used him at their summer camp.
“One thing that impressed the heck out of him is they used him at four different positions – quarterback, defensive end, safety and wide receiver,” Cornelius said. “He was intrigued by that. He likes coaches who will work his tail off. In this day and age most young men aren’t like that.”
Richardson is an excellent student who carries a 3.0 grade point average. He is expected to be eligible to graduate from Lakewood in December, but plans to stay around for the spring semester.
“He has more than enough credits to graduate,” Cornelius said. “But he enjoys track now and is actually excited compete in his senior year.”