Tennessee's football team has taken some rebuilding lumps this year while developing playmakers. But the biggest key to the Volunteers' offensive success next season isn't a skill position player; it's junior left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson.
Richardson is widely expected to test the NFL waters, but an inconsistent junior campaign makes it anything but a slam dunk that he'll go pro. What once seemed a foregone conclusion is not quite the sure thing it once was.
If the behemoth left tackle returns for his senior season, it would provide a 6'6", 332-pound boost to an offense with several nice pieces in place but with a returning offensive line in dire need of a centerpiece.
If Richardson goes pro, the Vols are going to have to rebuild their offensive front from scratch.
The Vols will lose at least their four senior starters—Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone and Alex Bullard. Replacing an entire offensive line is not conducive to building a strong offense.
The Orange & White will be green up front in 2014 if Richardson turns pro. They'd have just two linemen who've ever started a game in redshirt junior center Mack Crowder and junior guard Marcus Jackson, who is redshirting this year to tier future depth.
True freshman Dylan Wiesman is in line to play the other guard spot. Versatile Knoxville native Kyler Kerbyson would almost certainly be slotted for one tackle, and the 247Sports Composite's No. 2-rated JUCO offensive tackle Dontavius Blair would theoretically be given every opportunity to win the other tackle spot.
Richardson's return would give the Vols the luxury of Kerbyson and Blair battling for right tackle and being able to employ an All-American candidate at left tackle.
Given the fact that UT coach Butch Jones' offense is run-based, and the Vols will have at least two newcomers in the running back rotation next year, getting Tiny for another season would be huge. It would also be a drastic upgrade over anybody else the Vols could put guarding their quarterbacks' blind side.
Coming back would also give Richardson another year to work on technique and enter the 2015 NFL Draft as a virtual lock to be the first tackle taken.
Richardson's massive potential has made him a highly coveted NFL prospect.
According to Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller's latest big board, Richardson is the third-rated offensive tackle prospect available for the 2014 NFL Draft behind Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan.
Miller's latest '14 mock draft has Tiny going 12th overall to the Miami Dolphins. His measurables and athleticism could lead him to be drafted even higher with a strong combine showing.
Anything that high, and Richardson would be crazy not to forego his senior season.
But Richardson has simply not dominated opponents the way he was supposed to, and he's still relatively inexperienced. He didn't start at all and rarely played as a true freshman.
While his sheer physical force is impressive, his footwork and technique isn't polished. He struggled against Georgia's Ray Drew, and then Jadeveon Clowney handled him in a win over the Gamecocks, at least according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
Overall edge: Clowney, and by a longshot. He played all but two plays in the first half, watching a couple of snaps from the sideline near the end of the first quarter, and only once did he loaf on a play. Richardson was flagged for a false start on a 3rd-and-11 play in which he was trying to get a jump on Clowney's first step, and was later flagged for illegal formation because he was setting up too deep off the line of scrimmage, again in anticipation of Clowney's quickness. …
[Clowney] also helped set up several other TFLs by the USC defense, and was credited with two quarterback hurries. It was a dominant day, and given the head-to-head competition, by far Clowney's most impressive performance of the season.
In the past two games against fast defenses in Missouri and Auburn, Richardson didn't fare well, either.
During the Missouri game, Richardson was actually pulled from his left tackle position after getting manhandled early. He was moved to right tackle for what Butch Jones dubbed a "short-yardage plan," but it certainly seemed like a temporary demotion at the time.
Richardson is an unfinished product. He has the size and potential to be a franchise NFL left tackle, but another year in college would help him gain the year of experience he lost when Derek Dooley burned his redshirt for limited action.
It would greatly benefit Richardson—and especially the Vols—if he returns for his senior season.