O-Line Well Represented at SEC Media Days
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Tennessee’s SEC Media Days contingent didn’t try to hide its team strength. No need. It would have been an impossible task.
Despite three straight losing season, the Volunteers strolled into Birmingham, Ala., sporting one of the top offensive lines in the nation. Marcus Jackson figures to man the left guard position. Zach Fulton is slated to right guard with James Stone at center.
Wednesday, however, was about the tackles. Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James were two of the three Vols asked to attend media days before approximately 1,200 media members.
Best offensive line in college football? James doesn’t see that as an exaggeration whatsoever.
“I don’t think so,” the senior said. “We work everyday since we were freshmen to be the best in country. It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come. Two years ago people were talking about how we were the worst o-line in the country. Now a lot of people are saying we’re the best. We’ll just keep working and see at the end of the season how it all pans out.”
Simply inviting two offensive linemen to the annual, unofficial kickoff to football season is rare. Richardson was proud to be a part of the trio of Vols invited to meet with the media
“That is pretty awesome,” the junior said. “I think we’ve worked hard and we deserve it…I believe we’re the best offensive line in the country. I think we’re going to show it this year.”
UT’s offensive line was a bright spot in a 5-7 season last year. By all indications, the group should be better this year. Each offensive lineman has trimmed up in order to succeed – or survive – in Tennessee’s new, high-paced offensive system. Richardson has lost at least ten pounds to get down to 315, the lightest he’s weighed since high school.
“You look at my body from last year and you look at my body this year, you’d think you were looking at two different people…Everybody looks different,” he said.
The Vols will certainly need a top-flight offensive line. UT is largely unproven at every other position on offense and its defense is being rebuilt yet again. Richardson believes the Vols’ offensive front can help an unexperienced quarterback, whoever that might be.
“I think what we have to do is just build their confidence and let them know ‘Hey man, we got your back. We’re going to protect you. Play fast. Play physical and let’s go.’” he said.
UT’s offensive linemen are so confident that they were willing to trade some verbal jabs with Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney. On Tuesday, the All-American South Carolina defensive end said he’s seen players afraid of him at times. Evidently they weren’t wearing orange. Clowney had one sack against Tennessee last season and just four tackles while facing off against Richardson.
“Nobody on my team is scared,” James said. “He’s one of the guys that likes to talk. Tiny did his thing against him last year. He never came to my side. I don’t know if [Clowney] was scared or not.
“Tiny got to hog him. [Clowney's] one of those guys that makes rivalries what they are from talking.”
UT head coach Butch Jones knows what he has on the offensive line. Sure, he’d prefer a bit more depth but with the other shortcomings on his team, he’s also not taking his best players for granted.
“It’s a line-of-scrimmage league,” Jones said. “The offensive line, I’m concerned about our overall depth as a caretaker of Tennessee football. I’m looking two, three years down the road as well…But I tell you what, the individuals up front have done a great job and we’re going to need them to play at a very high level this year.”
Even though many fans have done so, James isn’t willing to write off UT’s skill-position players. It’s a tall order to replace departed receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. James believes the current crop of receivers are up to the task. He particularly mentioned Devrin Young, Alton Howard and Jason Croom as having strong off-seasons.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys mature,” James said. “Justin Hunter is gone. C.P. is gone. That’s given them a lot of opportunity. They’ve definitely matured this offseason. I’m looking forward to seeing the work they’ve put in this summer.”
Most expect Richardson to forgo his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. That and graduation would quickly gut what is currently Tennessee’s team strength. Richardson isn’t thinking that far ahead.
“I don’t think about it that much at all,” he said when asked about the NFL. “In order to be a top draft pick, you have to perform, so I’m worried about performing and winning a championship. Right now I’m worried about Tennessee. I’m not worried about the NFL.”
Understandably Tennessee’s players are ready to put the Derek Dooley era behind them. Richardson still has trouble figuring it out where it all went wrong.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “You can’t put it on one person. Sometimes things don’t come together. It is what it is.
“We’re just going to continue to get better and this o-line is going to lead this team and get these young skill guys ready to go.”