Yes, the Vols are probably still a year or two away from being able to compete in the SEC East (they’re on their fourth coach in six years, after all), but they’ve got the linemen necessary to win big now. Realistically, they could have all five offensive linemen get drafted this year. Even more realistically, they’ll have at least four.
Left tackle Antonio Richardson is the latest in a long line of excellent offensive tackles for the Vols. At 6-foot-6, 332 pounds (and still an underclassman, mind you), he’s got all the size and strength you could ever ask for. The man they call “Tiny” has excellent feet and a good kick-slide, and also generates a good punch. He’s got long arms and keeps his head on a swivel — all things necessary to protect the blindside at the NFL level.
No one doubt Richardson is going to be a first-rounder in an historic tackle class for the 2014 NFL Draft, but where he ranks on the tackle list is where the debate begins. He’ll be competing with Alabama‘s Cyrus Kouandjio, Michigan‘s Taylor Lewan, Texas A&M‘s Jake Matthews and Florida State‘s Cyrus Erving for top tackle billing. That’s quite a list of tackles right there. It’ll be very interesting to see how these guys stack up after this season.
After Richardson, right tackle Ja’Wuan James is the second best o-line prospect. Another 6-foot 6, 330-pound monstrosity, James has been the definition of steadiness during his time in Knoxville. Arriving as a highly sought-after recruit, James has started all 37 games consecutively, and has most closely resembled the Rock of Gibraltar.
What’s surprising is how well of a knee-bender James is considering his massive size, and how well he uses it to keep good leverage against smaller ends. James is looking like a legit third-round prospect at this point.
Center James Stone and guard Zach Fulton are next in terms of Tennessee’s pro prospects on the line. Both are grizzled vets who have a ton of experience trading blows with the SEC’s elite defensive linemen. While Fulton is looking like a fringe late-rounder, Stone is arguably the forth or fifth best center in the country, and could sneak as high as the fourth round.
People, these are just the pro prospects from the offensive line. The Vols also have two very highly thought of defensive prospects in middle linebacker A.J. Johnson (an underclassman who could be the best ‘Mike’ ‘backer in the country) and gigantic defensive tackle Daniel McCullers – a 6-foot 6, 360-pound monster.
Tennessee was long on talent and short on numbers in terms of draft prospects last year. This year, they’re long on both. It’ll be amazing to see how they adapt to new coach Butch Jones‘ schemes, and how much it boosts their draft stock.