Breaking Down How Tennessee Will Replace Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

Replacing Tennessee's offensive line begins with tackling the tackle position, where departed Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James left a huge void
Replacing Tennessee's offensive line begins with tackling the tackle position, where departed Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James left a huge voidWade Payne/Associated Press

Together, they were a 645-pound mass of road-grading orange. But replacing Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James on the Tennessee offensive line carries even more weight than that on the Vols' 2014 success.

Between the tackle duo, James started all 49 of his college games, and Richardson started his final 24. They were lineup staples who paved the way for some impressive offensive numbers, especially in 2012.

So, where will head coach Butch Jones turn to replace them?

The simple answer is "hope."

Of the five players expected to be competing for those two vacant tackle spots, there are three combined SEC games played and zero starts among them.

Walk-on senior Jacob Gilliam is the only one who has played. Dontavius Blair and Coleman Thomas have been on campus for two months, and the redshirt freshman tandem of Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders have no experience, either.

Tuesday's first day of pads saw Thomas (right tackle) and Blair (left tackle) trot out with the 1s, getting their baptism by fire early.

Tennessee will try to replace the size and massive force of James and Richardson with more nimble players who are better athletic fits for an uptempo offensive attack.

For all of the departed linemen's physical prowess, they were not schematic fits for what Jones wants to do offensively. The overhaul is an opportunity to rebuild a line that thrives on quickness and athleticism.

Questions abound, and even though neither newcomer has talked to the media yet, the upperclassmen indicate the whole group has a collective chip on its shoulder. 

"I mean, I'd rather have it where people don't think we can do it," junior guard Kyler Kerbyson told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required). "That way we can surprise them."

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The most publicized battle for the Vols this spring may be quarterback, but at least as important a storyline is how they plan to retool the offensive line—particularly the tackles.

There's simply no sugarcoating having to replace an entire offensive line in the SEC, especially when your two stalwarts at tackle are projected in the first four rounds of May's NFL draft, according to Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller.

While the interior of the Vols' line appears on relatively firm footing with center Mack Crowder and guards Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson and Dylan Wiesman, outside is a different story.

There's no way for Thomas and Blair (or the other candidates) to replace the experience of Richardson and James.

Instead, they'll pride themselves on technique and athleticism, traits that weren't always present with the old guard. They got by on mostly talent, and having four offensive line coaches in four seasons hurt in establishing a consistent level of strength and toughness.

When a group of linemen start 177 combined games, they leave a legacy. But the best news for this new group of Vols along the offensive front is the old group wasn't without its faults.

UT was 91st in the country in third-down conversions last year, according to ESPN, and while Rajion Neal did eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in 2013, the Vols were still just ninth in the league on the ground.

Too many times, the Vols failed to get tough yardage, and while a big part of that was the lack of an impact runner, some of the blame goes to the line.

So, while replacing Richardson and James is going to be a tall task, it's possible that the gap may not be as wide as many expect.

Crowder told UTSports' Jason Yellin that this year's line has to establish its own identity:

We are just different players. Those other guys were obviously very big and athletic. We are going to pride ourselves on being physical and finishing through the whistle. We really have to be strong mentally as well because those guys were so big and athletic we have to make up for that in other ways. Being smart before the play actually happens so you know what to do during the play.

Though he isn't yet in playing shape, Blair—the leading candidate to replace Richardson at the all-important left tackle spot—possesses the frame to be an athletic option who better fits Jones' uptempo style than Richardson.

Blair is listed at 6'8", 313 pounds on Tennessee's spring roster, and the junior college transfer isn't carrying around with him the balky knees that hobbled Richardson through his final year in Knoxville.

There's a lot with which to work, but Crowder told Yellin in the linked article that Blair still has a ways to go in his development.

(Blair) is a big, athletic guy. He has been doing pretty good job on the field mentally. He still has a lot of work to do. He is pretty raw. But he is a great worker, he brings it every day and he is all in for us. Depending on how bad he wants it, he will be a great asset for us.

As for Thomas, the true freshman has a huge opportunity awaiting him. The former 3-star prospect on 247Sports has added nearly 15 pounds of good weight to his frame since arriving on campus and is listed at 6'6", 311 pounds.

He is versatile and athletic and will attempt to use those attributes to fill the huge shoes vacated by James.

While asking him to replicate the on-field production is heaping too many expectations on him at an early juncture, the development of him, Blair and the other tackle options is vital. Kerbyson told Callahan that the line wants to be a group of "hard workers and finishers."

"We want for the offensive line to lead the whole offense," Kerbyson said. "The only way that we can be a good offense is if we're a good offensive line."

Without tackles emerging, that is going to be impossible to achieve.


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