MAPLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — Kentucky’s coaches had JaVonte Richardson’s back.
At least that’s the line Richardson, one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the 2017 class, said a handful of times in an hour span at his house just 30 minutes outside of Cleveland. Richardson’s relationship with Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and tight ends coach Vince Marrow was fostered by a northeastern Ohio connection.
Stoops was the first head coach who showed up to Maple Heights High School — the place where Richardson turned into a top-300 national prospect and one of the most sought after signatures in the state.
Richardson remembers that visit with Stoops.
“He showed me all his rings,” Richardson said. “He from Youngstown. I know how that area is. I know he’s gonna have my back.”
There it was again, that familiar phrase.
Richardson isn’t the first Kentucky signee to say glowing things about the coaching staff, but perhaps no other member of the Wildcats’ 2017 class except Youngstown’s own Lynn Bowden had a better understanding of Stoops, Marrow and where they came from.
“They’re blue collar,” Dana Smith, Richardson’s dad, said. “They know exactly what parents, people, the citizens of this state — they know how hard it is to get a good opportunity.”
Kentucky gave Richardson an opportunity several other suitors were hesitant to. It was a position promise of sorts. Some coaches saw Richardson, at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, as a safety instead of a wide receiver. Marrow made it clear that Richardson would be an offensive weapon in Lexington.
Michigan State, the school Richardson said came in second, couldn’t make the same promise. Richardson called Spartans coach Mark Dantonio “a good dude,” but he wanted him on the other side of the ball.
“That soured him a little bit,” said Devlin Culliver, Richardson’s coach at Maple Heights. “There was a whole bunch of schools fighting for which side he was going to play on.”
The whole idea of Richardson as a defender was a misunderstanding. Maple Heights was short on players and Culliver asked Richardson to play defense.
“Nobody even thought that he could get back there and be a dominant defensive player,” Culliver said. “That was all by accident. It just so happens somebody saw it on tape and said, ‘Oh, he’s a defensive player.’ He’s an offensive player, 100 percent.”
Richardson laughs about it now. Defense was never an option for him no matter how good he might’ve looked on film to college coaches.
Now the position debate might be between receiver and tight end. Richardson’s build makes him an option at either position, but to stay at receiver, he admitted he needs to work on his second-wind speed.
Kentucky was one of seven offers for Richardson. He committed in March 2016 and didn’t waiver in his decision in the 11 months between then and National Signing Day, when he became Kentucky’s third-highest ranked signee.
“I feel I can bring a lot to the table on offense,” Richardson said. “Once they offered me as a wide receiver, I took full advantage of it.”
When Culliver knows he has a special player, he makes sure to let his old friends know first. Those friends happen to be named Mark and Vince, and Culliver opened the line of communication between Richardson and Kentucky.
Culliver remembers a 9-year-old Marrow. They grew up together. He later met Stoops in high school.
“The fact that I know those guys very well makes it easier for me to call them and if I say, ‘Hey, we got a guy.’ They’re gonna say, ‘OK.’ They get first dibs on all my guys,” Culliver said. “Obviously I’m an Ohio guy. I like Ohio State, but those are my friends from home. Any guy I get, I’ll direct them to Kentucky first.”
Marrow’s best recruiting attribute is his ability to adapt to different families, places and situations, Culliver said. He said Marrow knows the language of the inner city, but also that of the suburbs like Maple Heights.
Marrow used his relationship with Culliver as part of his pitch to Richardson.
“He talked about our Youngstown relationship and how we grew up,” Culliver said. “Growing up the same way he’s growing up. We had a good family trying to provide for their family and give them the best opportunity. I think he used that to his advantage to get JaVonte to pull the trigger on Kentucky.”
But Culliver said he never pushed Richardson toward Kentucky. He stayed out of the process once it got started. Recruitment was a process Richardson didn’t like.
“This process is long,” he said. “I hated this process.”
In the end, Richardson said Kentucky felt like family. Playing in the SEC had been his dream since he was 9 years old. Schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State were in pursuit, but the northernmost SEC school proved to be the winning blend of proximity and competition.
“Look at him,” Smith said. “He’s a big guy. I think he’ll be SEC material. That’s where the best is at, so that’s where we need to go.”
He’s not only SEC material, but also NFL material, according to Culliver.
“I would be shocked if he wasn’t playing in the NFL one day,” Culliver said. “Physically he just has it.”
And now that Richardson will be wearing blue and white, it’ll give his high school coach no other option but to visit his old friends.
“Coach Stoops and Coach Marrow have been asking me to come down to Kentucky to visit since they’ve been there, and I’ve always come up with some excuse,” Culliver said. “Now I don’t have an excuse. I have to go.”
More from our Kentucky Next Generation series
- Alex King’s mom has shaped her son’s football career from the beginning
- Kentucky freshman Tyrell Ajian welcoming comparisons to Cats’ star safety
- Two-sport star Jordan Wright coming to Kentucky with lofty goals
- Sebastien Dolcine wants to be part of the ‘Mark Stoops era’ at Kentucky
- Kentucky football beat out LSU for DB Michael Nesbitt
- Eddie Gran’s persistence flipped DE Chris Whittaker to Kentucky
- Chance to play in the SEC lured Josh Ali to Lexington
- Still new to the game, Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald made an early impression on Kentucky
- Position promise gave Wildcats an edge with JaVonte Richardson
- Tyrell Ajian got the ‘gut feeling’ he needed from Kentucky’s coaches
- Big Ten schools stood out, but Wildcats proved best for LB Alex King
- Gone from a dying city, Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson finds life in Lexington
- Top Kentucky football signee Lynn Bowden not focused on comparisons