AMES — When ISU quarterback Sam Richardson found himself third on the depth chart during the spring, he sought familiar refuges.
First, the former starter from Winter Park, Fla., turned inward for motivation.
Then, he reached out toward home.
“Those guys who I played high school ball with, the coaches I worked with,” said Richardson, whose journey back to the top culminated Monday when Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads announced he’d ascended to the No. 1 spot. “Those guys definitely refocus me if I need (it).”
A rebuilt, re-energized and refocused Richardson emerged in the summer.
He put on about 15 pounds of muscle.
He fashioned a firm handle on Mark Mangino’s offense.
He felt more confident and hungry; poised to pounce during this fall’s open competition.
So he did — and eventually beat out Grant Rohach, who started the final four games of 2013 after Richardson’s lingering injuries went from bad to worse.
“He’s had a tremendous fall camp up to this point,” Rhoads said of Richardson, who boasts a career 19-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. “I’ll tell you why: He’s displayed great leadership and that certainly includes poise in the pocket where he’s been very much in control of our offense and of himself. His understanding of the scheme and decision-making has really grown in the time that we’ve spent here the last two weeks. And maybe as much as anything, he’s throwing a great ball. An accurate ball. A tight ball. A catchable ball. A ball that’s being thrown and receivers are catching it in the run and not having to stop for or turn for and things of this nature. He’s a great runner. Hopefully we can keep him healthy and we can put those running skills on display as the season goes along.”
Richardson said the added muscle could help him fend off would-be tacklers better this season.
Other than that, he’ll run the same way, which, when healthy, provides the offense a needed added weapon.
Richardson ranked third on the team in rushing last season, with 356 yards and two touchdowns.
He’s carried the ball 10 or more times in eight of his 10 career starts — with a high of 119 yards in a 2012 loss to West Virginia.
“I guess improvisation is something I’ve been good at,” Richardson said. “So I’d say it’s about the same. With the added weight, hopefully it just helps me.”
Richardson’s proven to be adept at self-help, too, and he applied that skill while dealing with the hard knocks of last season that seeped into spring.
"There was a point in the spring when he was on the bottom looking up and a lot of credit goes to him — his thick skin, his self drive and motivation to compete," Rhoads said.
Richardson said sitting out the final two games — which ISU won, thanks in part to solid performances from Rohach — served as a long-burning reminder of how individual fortunes can change for better or worse.
“That was one of the huge things for me,” said Richardson, who completed 121 of 220 passes last season for 1,397 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. “Obviously, it’s awesome to see the team go out there and win. Obviously, those are all my buddies out there. But at the same time you want to be on the field when those kinds of things are happening, so you’ve got to refocus yourself and set a task at hand.”
There’s that word again: Refocus.
Richardson narrowed his on a single, sometimes elusive attribute: Consistency.
“That was, I think, the one thing that stood out between the two of us,” Richardson said of this round of competition. “I feel like I was more consistent throughout the practices and not really having a real low day at all throughout camp.”
Rhoads supplied it.
“I hope you continue to see what he’s displayed to us in 17 practices: A guy that’s in command, in control and throwing accurate balls,” Rhoads said of expectations for Richardson entering the Aug. 30 season opener against North Dakota State. “I know he threw 70 percent (in Saturday’s scrimmage) and he might have been 72 percent the previous Saturday. I don’t think that’s an over-the-top number in our offense, so I’d like to see his completion percentage remain extremely high.”
One low Richardson is unlikely — barring injury — to revisit anytime soon is seeing himself replaced.
“No, no,” Rhoads said when asked about Richardson’s hold on the top job. “Sam’s our starting quarterback and there won’t be any kind of hand on his shoulder or anything like that to worry about.”
Still, when a dream’s been lost — and regained, you take nothing for granted.
“Obviously that helps,” Richardson said of Rhoads’ forceful vote of confidence. “Going through camp — you’ve still got to compete and stuff and go out there every day knowing you’ve got to give your best effort to get the job. You can’t get complacent now. Even though he’s saying that, you’ve got to know that anytime if you’re struggling there’s a chance you’re going to get pulled out of a game. So it’s nice to know that he says that, but at the same time you’ve still got to play your best every game.”
For good reason.
Rohach isn’t going anywhere.
Rhoads said he’s liked the sophomore from Moorpark, California’s progress, too.
“Grant’s not disappointing to us,” Rhoads said, “And Grant’s a better quarterback than he was when we beat Kansas and West Virginia.”
Richardson’s arc of improvement simply spiraled to a loftier perch.
And he’s excited about the heights it can reach — with the help from his friends.
“You want to take it by the reins and run with it,” Richardson said. “Obviously not giving up an opportunity like that — it’s something you dream about as a kid. And getting an opportunity to do it again is obviously something you want to do.”