With six offensive linemen returning who boast 123 starts among them, Tennessee's blocking front is regarded as the cornerstone of the 2013 squad by most observers. But not all.
"Everyone wants to crown our offensive line," head coach Butch Jones said recently. "They haven't done anything yet, in my opinion. All we've seen 'em do is run around in shorts."
Told of the head man's comment, left tackle Antonio Richardson chuckled.
"Awww, that's just him talking," Richardson said. "He knows we're a pretty tight group and we're going to continue to get better."
In addition to getting better, Vol blockers are getting leaner. Most have lost between 10 and 16 pounds since Jones took the Big Orange reins in December. The 6-foot-6 Richardson, nicknamed "Tiny," says he has dropped 10 pounds.
"I came in at 336," he said. "Now I'm at 326, so I'm feeling pretty good."
Asked where he can feel the difference in his weight, Richardson replied: "Of course, in my gut. But I feel a lot of pressure taken off my knee now. I can really tell. The 10-pound difference has really helped a lot."
That's significant since he underwent a minor surgical procedure on his knee during the offseason that will limit him to non-contact work during spring practice. The less weight the knee has to support, the less chance there is he'll re-injure it.
Even after shedding 10 pounds, Richardson is determined to continue lowering his weight.
"I want to play between 318 and 320," he said. "I've got a little more work to do but it'll all work out."
Richardson carried close to 340 pounds as a sophomore last fall while starting all 12 games at left tackle. He says his weight was never an issue with the previous coaching staff.
"They didn't really have a preference as long as your body fat was low," he said. "My body fat was pretty low but now that they're making me drop weight my body fat is down to like 15 or 16 percent."
Although a decrease in weight usually means an increase in stamina, the primary goal for Tennessee's offensive linemen is preparing them for the up-tempo pace the new staff is implementing.
"We're moving pretty fast," Richardson said. "Even faster than last year, so it's going to pay dividends for us in the end."
Given that Tennessee's 2012 season concluded with a 5-7 record and the dismissal of the coaching staff, most Vols were eager to get back on the field this spring and start the process of redeeming themselves. No one was more eager than Richardson.
"When I stepped out on the field it was like a breath of fresh air," he said. "I was just happy to be back out on the grid."
Although he cannot be hit in practice, Richardson declined to wear a green jersey, designating him off-limits for contact.
|Richardson competed at 340 pounds during the 2012 season He was voted second-team All-SEC by the Associated Press.|
"Some guys do," he said. "For me, I'd rather be wearing a white jersey, so my teammates know I'm with them. I stay in in the huddle with them every play, make sure they know I'm there."
Tennessee held its first practice of the spring earlier this month. Although his participation was extremely limited, Richardson thought the workout went well.
"I was really happy with how our guys responded," he said. "It was a different practice schedule – we'd never done it before – and our guys responded pretty well, so I was happy with it."
Richardson ranks fifth among Tennessee's offensive linemen in starts. Seniors Ja'Wuan James (37), Zach Fulton (28), James Stone (27) and Alex Bullard (14) are more experienced. Fellow junior Marcus Jackson has five starts.
With almost all of Tennessee's offensive experience in the line, there is some pressure on the blockers to carry the team this fall. Richardson says he doesn't feel that pressure, however.
"No," he said. "We just come in every day. There's no pressure. We just do what we do and move on."
Still, he concedes that the veteran blockers carry an extra load in terms of leadership.
"Most definitely," he said. "The offensive line sets the tone for everything. We've got leaders like Ja'Wuan and myself who have been in the fire and done it. We're just going to lead our team and move on."
Obviously, the top priority this spring is the search for a quarterback to succeed three-year starter Tyler Bray. Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman shared the practice repetitions thus far.
"Everything takes time," Richardson said. "They did pretty well for the first day. Only time will tell."
Worley started three games as a freshman in 2011 but scarcely broke a sweat in 2012. Still, Richardson has seen progress in him from last fall to this spring.
"I have," Richardson said. "He really takes command of the offense. He's being really vocal, getting the offense together and doing things outside of football. He's really becoming a leader."
See more of what Richardson has had to say after practice this spring in the interview below:
Check out InsideTennessee's video of the Vol O-line at work on Robert E. White Indoor Field here:
Have a look at what first-year Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney said on Thursday: