One of the main storylines coming into fall camp for the SEC has centered on the rich abundance of quarterback talent the league returns for the upcoming 2013 season. There’s a three-year starter coming back for his fifth and final season at Georgia, redshirt senior Aaron Murray and of course Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner for Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M. Along with A.J McCarron, a two-time BCS National Championship winner at Alabama, the SEC is covered from head to toe with the most premier position in sports.
But it’s no mystery what the SEC will hang its hat on again this season — stellar trench play on both sides of the ball. The line of scrimmage league features some future NFL Pro Bowl players in returning South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, and Alabama’s extremely freakish junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. This list could not be complete without one of the biggest breakthrough players as an underclassman in 2012, Tennessee Volunteers‘ Antonio “Tiny” Richardson.
Richardson was named to the Sports Illustrated preseason All-American Team Thursday as a second teamer. In addition, Tiny has also been named to plenty other preseason teams, including Phil Steele’s and Athlon Sports’ All-American second team.
Last season, Richardson was a part of Tennessee’s offensive line rejuvenation under current Arkansas Razorbacks offensive line coach Sam Pittman. The offensive line helped contribute to Tennessee’s offensive average of just less than 478 yards per contest, primarily because of only allowing seven sacks in the team’s dozen games.
Last October, Richardson shut down South Carolina’s Clowney for all but one play. That constituted one sack allowed by Richardson, and he only surrendered an eye opening two sacks on the entire season. Richardson made his mark in the Georgia game, preventing Pittsburgh Steelers first rounder Jarvis Jones from doing any damage on quarterback Tyler Bray.
Richardson’s upside became so apparent to the last coaching staff quickly into his second season that Pittman and last year’s offensive coordinator Jim Chaney decided to move senior Dallas Thomas inside to guard to make room for Richardson at the blindside left tackle spot. Thomas was a fifth year senior with 25 career starts at the left tackle position. All he did was start all of Tennessee’s games, five of which were for more than 500 yards combined by the offense.
NFL scouts drooled over the massive size and strength they witnessed from the former No. 1 prospect in Tennessee during the 2011 recruiting class. They believe he brings fantastic versatility and could slide into guard somewhere down the road when he gets to the National Football League. The same scouts believe if he gets seasoned at run blocking with the new regime his stock will skyrocket into a top ten pick later in April. Richardson is sturdier and quicker presently than he has ever been at the collegiate level, and that’s due in part to him losing 12 pounds, which makes him 325 right now.
Richardson will be the mainstay of the Tennessee offensive line, largely considered by most as the best offensive line in the SEC and the entire country. Six, including Richardson return on the offensive line, which have made a combined 123 starts and are a year wiser under new offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who has been with Butch Jones at his stops in Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Opposite of Richardson is senior Ju’Wuan James, starting at right tackle in every game of his career, followed by Zach Fulton and Marcus Jackson manning the interior for the Vols. Senior center James Stone saw some time at guard in his earlier days at Tennessee’s campus, and now he’s an all-SEC type of center, being named to the Rimington Trophy watch list.
The strength of Richardson and this unit should expand the capacity of the running game even more from last year. Under new head Vol, Butch Jones, Cincinnati led the Big East in rushing in 2011 and 2012, averaging 385 yards a game in 2011. Tennessee returns Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane who both hit over 650 yards last season. With only three returning receivers from last year’s group, it’s very cut and dry what this new staff wants to do in their audition in the nation’s best conference.