Iowa State's decision to play freshman quarterback Sam Richardson in the final two games of the regular season resulted in a win, a loss and a lot of hope for the future.
Now Richardson has the chance to grow some more.
Iowa State (6-6) earned a berth in the Liberty Bowl against Tulsa (10-3), giving Richardson more time to increase his familiarity with the rest of the starting offense.
The Cyclones say the experience from playing in a pair of games and working as the starter in practice is already paying off.
"The biggest thing, to be honest with you, is pocket presence," offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. "Because how he's handled the offense, how he's interacted with the players has always been very mature, very much 'I know what I'm doing.' But the thing that's changed is, now that he's had real live reps, is his ability to understand 'I need to go run' or 'I need to throw it away and not take a sack.'"
Richardson, a redshirt freshman who spent much of the year as the third stringer, led the Cyclones to touchdowns on four straight possessions in his first full quarter of playing time in a 51-23 win over Kansas on Nov. 17. That effort earned him his first and only start the following week against West Virginia.
Richardson completed just 13 of 31 passes in extremely blustery conditions, but he also racked up three TDs and no picks in a 31-24 loss. He's since been able to work with the rest of the starting offense more than he ever had before, and he said that experience has been "tremendously" positive.
"I've definitely molded my game to fit with the (starters) now and it's helped quite a bit," Richardson said.
The one thing the Cyclones would like to see more of is assertiveness.
The soft-spoken Richardson is still growing into his role as a leader. But coach Paul Rhoads said Sunday that he's seen Richardson make progress in that area during bowl preparation, and Richardson is doing his best to adopt a more assertive approach.
"It's just being confident in your play," he said. "Sometimes back earlier in the year I might have gotten frustrated with myself. Now it's carrying yourself through those mistakes and carrying the offense as well."
Iowa State has always thought highly of Richardson even when it wasn't ready to hand him the starting job. But the Cyclones are even more confident in him after watching him play in games, because he's shown a knack for making plays when it matters.
"To be honest, I don't see a big bit of difference. I don't mean that in a negative way," Rhoads said. "I just mean that it's not like with one start and a lot of playing time in the other game and these extra reps he's bloomed into the next Dan Marino. He's doing a nice job, but he also did a nice job before. He just didn't do some of the little things that we needed him to do to hand it over to him."
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