PITTSBURGH -- The journey that led Shaquille Richardson to the practice fields he stepped onto Friday, the first day of Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie minicamp, started years ago on the other side of the country.
An unheralded recruit in Los Angeles, Richardson caught then-UCLA assistant coach Carnell Lake's eye at a summer camp with the way he stuck to wide receivers like paparazzi. On Lake's recommendation, the Bruins brought Richardson back for another camp.
"He came in and was the best cover guy we had," Lake said. "We offered him a scholarship the next day."
Richardson signed with UCLA in 2009, but neither he nor Lake stuck around Westwood -- though both for different reasons.
Their football paths have finally crossed again and this much is certain: the Steelers need their defensive backs coach to nurture the talent that he was one of the first to discern.
Richardson will receive more scrutiny than any fifth-round draft choice should, in large part because he is the only cornerback the Steelers drafted this year. The Steelers were expected to select a cornerback early in the draft and take two of them, something they have twice done since 2009.
They waited until the draft's third day to take the Arizona product. And the Steelers drafted Richardson in the same round that they selected Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne last year.
Hawthorne didn't make it out of training camp, and he was the only draft pick the Steelers gave up on after preseason practice.
They better have done a better job of evaluating Richardson given their lack of depth at cornerback and need to get younger at the position.
"He’s definitely a good prospect that’s got the measurables that you’re looking for," Arizona defensive backs coach David Lockwood said of Richardson. "He’s a smart player. He picks up things fast and he has some cover skills, which of course you need at that level."
Richardson started 37 of 49 games at Arizona and recorded 189 career tackles while intercepting 10 passes and breaking up 30 of them.
The 6-1, 194-pounder has good size, and he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 seconds range, which Lake said, "is fast enough, especially if he is a good technician."
Lake never got to work with Richardson on the finer points of playing cornerback.
Richardson was arrested (along with three others) for felony theft before his freshman season -- charges were later dropped -- and he transferred to Arizona. Lake left the Bruins' coaching staff after the 2009 season to spend more time with his family, but he kept an eye on Richardson. The Steelers hired Lake in March 2011 to coach the defensive backs.
Lockwood, meanwhile, said Richardson never had any off-the-field issues the two seasons the two were together at Arizona.
"He’s got a good personality and you can hold a conversation with him," Lockwood said. "He likes to have fun and joke around, but when it’s time to work you go to work."
The Steelers hosted Richardson for a pre-draft visit last month, and Lake said he was "instantly likeable."
The Steelers liked Richardson enough that they were content to wait until the fifth round to select a cornerback and hope Richardson was still available.
"I did get a good vibe from coach Lake when I was there," Richardson said of his visit. "I'm so happy to be back under him, learn from him and be a Pittsburgh Steeler."
The Steelers are counting on Richardson -- and Lake -- for that to be the case for a long time.
"Shaquille Richardson has the prototypical size you want in a starter-capable corner," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "He's fast, he's athletic. He's got a chance."