Tennessee coach Butch Jones will have a difficult time replacing a player as talented as Tiny Richardson at left offensive tackle next season, but finding a better schematic fit won't be insurmountable.
When Richardson announced last week via UTSports.com that he would forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, the news was expected. The 6'6", 327-pound offensive lineman's decision means UT must replace its entire front five next year.
A new-look Vols offensive line might not be such a bad thing, though.
Make no mistake, returning a player of Richardson's ilk from a sheer talent perspective would have been a big building block for the 2014 season. Replacing him won't be easy.
But there are various reasons why starting over on the offensive front can be a blessing more than a curse.
How big of a loss is Tiny Richardson?
The most logical argument for incorporating new blood is none of this year's Vols starters—seniors Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone and Alex Bullard, along with Richardson—were recruited to block for a spread offense.
Zone-blocking concepts require a specific type of lineman with agility and athleticism. Tennessee's group of linemen weren't prototypes for this offense, which is why UT line coach Don Mahoney estimated they lost 80 combined pounds prior to the season, according to the Associated Press' Steve Megargee.
That means UT's vaunted linemen had to adjust to new bodies, which isn't an easy task for big guys. The linemen—Richardson included—were at their best when they were running man-blocking schemes, particularly in 2012 under current Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Richardson is a prototypical strength-based road-grader.
While he had some success getting to the edge and blocking outside, that really isn't where he excels, especially considering he has been battling a microfracture in his knee.
The injury likely played a major role in Richardson's decision to leave for the NFL. While he was known as a very athletic lineman coming out of high school, the knee issues hurt his athletic ability and negatively affected his play this year.
Also, for all the talking he did this season, guaranteeing wins over Missouri and Vanderbilt, Richardson's play fell short.
With the national spotlight on him against South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney, Richardson struggled, according to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. After that game, Richardson was plagued with penalties and inconsistency, and it wound up being a disappointing season overall.
Despite the subpar year, Goodbread still likes Richardson as a prospect.
Like Tiny Richardson's game a lot. At best, a very good NFL left tackle. At worst, a very good NFL right tackle. High ceiling, high floor.— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) December 6, 2013
Either his knee really bothered him more than he let on or he just wasn't a great fit for blocking in Jones' offense.
Getting more athleticism at the position is a must moving forward.
The Vols will welcome junior college tackle Dontavius Blair, who is expected to step in at left tackle to replace Richardson. Junior Kyler Kerbyson, incoming freshman Coleman Thomas and others will battle for that other tackle spot.
Inside, UT should be in pretty good shape with guards Marcus Jackson, Dylan Wiesman and center Mack Crowder.
None of those guys has started consistently on this level. Had Richardson stuck around, they all may have expected a player of that caliber to carry them and make up for their mistakes.
Without that luxury now, leadership will be a point of emphasis for Mahoney, who can mold an offensive line that better suits this style.
Finally, nobody wants to talk about it at Tennessee, but a losing culture had permeated the program prior to the hiring of Jones.
As much press as the offensive linemen have gotten over the course of their careers, they've underachieved. Fair or not, Richardson is included in that group. So while losing him is a major blow, it's not like it's crushing the fanbase.
Richardson will always be loved by UT fans. He was a highly recruited in-state player who elected to stay home rather than attend Alabama, Georgia or others. He always spoke his mind, played with a chip on his shoulder and garnered some accolades along the way.
Losing him is going to be tough. But his departure isn't a crippling blow to an offense that is going to have new faces all over it, anyway.
Jones is attempting to flip the roster as quickly as possible, get as many of the guys he recruited in there and change the overall mentality of the program. The Vols will be young in 2014, but they'll also be more talented—even with Tiny playing on Sundays.