Source: Northwestern athletics
When Mike Bajakian officially became Northwestern’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in December, he knew he would have to get to work quickly — the Wildcats still needed a quarterback recruit for the class of 2020.
He got help in his search from an unlikely source: former Provost Jonathan Holloway. Holloway was a linebacker at Stanford in the 1980s, and he told Bajakian to take a look at the son of one of his former teammates, fellow linebacker Kevin Richardson.
Just over a week after Bajakian took the job, Carl Richardson had committed to NU. And barely two weeks later, the Salinas, Calif. native was taking classes in Evanston.
“I had my first phone contact with him, and in the conversation, he mentioned that he was set to graduate midyear,” Bajakian said. “But he was not happy with the offers he had available to him. I had a conversation with Coach (Pat Fitzgerald), we tossed it around a little bit, and before you know it we were having a conversation about bringing him in midyear.”
An athletic background
In Salinas, high school football is the biggest game in town. That was perfect for Richardson, who grew up with football in his blood. His older brother Jack was a quarterback at Stanford, though he never started a game.
But Richardson diverted from his brother’s path in several ways. While Jack attended Palma School, the all-boys Catholic school in Salinas and a local football powerhouse, Carl went to the much bigger and more traditional Salinas High School, saying he wanted to play for coach Steven Zenk and help improve the Cowboys’ program.
“I really wanted to play for (Zenk), an awesome football mind,” Richardson said. “I knew he could turn around the Salinas High program. It was a better offense, they threw the ball more, and it was a more fun high school to go to, a bigger, public high school.”
Richardson first made the varsity team as a sophomore. He impressed in limited action as the backup, throwing for nearly 300 yards on just 28 attempts before becoming the starter his last two years.
Salinas won its division in 2018 with Richardson leading the way. He completed 269 of 366 passes for just over 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns. But as good as Richardson’s junior year was, Zenk had a sense he would be even better as a senior.
“He got a thousand times better at it every year,” Zenk said. “I’ve never seen that kind of improvement before. He had a pretty good junior year and then was lights-out better from one year to the next.”
Cutting back on interceptions was a major offseason point of emphasis for Richardson, who threw 13 as a junior, or just over one per game. But as a senior, he was remarkably accurate — his completion percentage declined slightly, to a still-impressive 71.2 percent, but he tossed 34 touchdown passes in 10 games with just six interceptions as Salinas again won a division title.
Richardson’s defining moment came in late September against rival Palma, his brother’s alma mater. The Cowboys squandered a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter and found themselves trailing by four late. But Richardson led Salinas back down the field, completing a 10-yard touchdown pass with roughly a minute remaining to give his team a 38-35 win. The scoring play capped Richardson’s four-touchdown, no-interception performance.
“That was a pretty fun one. You can’t write the script any better than that,” Richardson said. “There were about 5,000 fans in the stands, just absolutely packed. Having the game-winning drive against our rival my senior year was something I’ll never forget.”
Becoming a Wildcat
When Richardson wasn’t leading Salinas’ offense on Friday nights, he was grinding in the classroom in order to graduate ahead of schedule. And on top of all that, he was also president of Salinas High’s Best Buddies club, which met with the school’s special education students every two weeks and had about 50 members by Richardson’s senior year.
Richardson said the possibility of enrolling in college early was a motivating factor for taking eight courses in addition to playing football.
“I had great help from the people around me,” Richardson said. “Coach Zenk being an awesome leader of our football program, awesome teammates who I was really thankful to play with, and my parents did an awesome job supporting me and giving me the resources to succeed.”
Before the Cats swooped in, Richardson had five other FBS offers including Washington State and Boise State, and Ivy League programs Columbia and Yale had also offered him a scholarship. Stanford, which his entire immediate family attended, only gave him a preferred walk-on spot.
Richardson was familiar with NU from attending a football camp there before his junior year, and he stayed in touch with the coaching staff, sending them weekly updates and film. NU felt pressure to sign a quarterback before the early signing period ended on December 20, and Bajakian believed Richardson would receive several more offers if he had waited until the later signing period began in February. Richardson talked several times with both Bajakian and Fitzgerald, and Bajakian also reached out to his coaches in Salinas to gather more information.
Bajakian and Fitzgerald also made sure to get to know Richardson’s family, talking with parents Kevin and Teresa along with Carl himself as the early signing deadline neared. When NU finally made the offer on the last morning of the early signing period, Richardson committed on the spot.
“(Fitzgerald) treated it like there was no reason for us to know anything about him,” Kevin Richardson said. “It was really fun to listen to him talk about his vision for the program. You could tell it was a guy who realizes every day that you have to remake what you’re doing, so that was really fun to hear.”
An immediate fit
Richardson arrived in Evanston in early January for the start of Winter Quarter, taking a full load of college classes and living in Bobb Hall. He had just two weeks to figure out his classes and living situation, but said he ended up getting along well with his roommate, a 24-year-old exchange student from Singapore.
He was also getting along with his new college teammates, especially the other quarterbacks. NU already had six other quarterbacks on its roster when Richardson enrolled, and now has seven others after adding Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey.
The Cats’ experience at the position means Richardson is unlikely to see much game action early in his career, but Bajakian said he has picked up NU’s new offensive system quickly.
“He’s got an outgoing personality,” Bajakian said. “He’s very confident and he’s very attentive. A highly intelligent quarterback at Northwestern is not an anomaly, but he has been able to come in and learn the new offense as quickly as the veterans have.”
That outgoing personality was displayed at the annual student-athlete lip sync battle in early March, when Richardson performed the popular “Napoleon Dynamite” dance as the only solo act. He said defensive lineman Joe Spivak, who hosted the event, forced him into it, but still called it one of the highlights of his quarter.
The Cats only completed eight spring practices before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the team to part ways, and with so many quarterbacks ahead of him, Richardson played sparingly. Bajakian was nonetheless impressed with his maturity, saying Richardson was frequently the first to answer a question he posed to the entire quarterback room.
Now, Richardson is back home in Salinas with his parents and brother, taking online classes and watching film through electronic meetings with his teammates and coaches. He and Jack are throwing, running and lifting weights together as Carl waits for Northwestern to make a decision on when the team can return to campus — to the school that fit everything he was looking for.
“Coach Bajakian, knowing his background, knowing what type of mind he has about the offensive coordinator position was one of the biggest selling points,” Richardson said. “And Coach Fitzgerald, having that stability in the head coaching position and Northwestern being his alma mater, I could tell there was a tradition of winning and excellence with this program that I was so fired up to have the opportunity to be a part of.”
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