We're taking a look at the top seven offensive and defensive players on Tennessee's roster who made a leap this spring. Here are the four installments we've gone through so far.
Due to some shoddy scheduling on my part, No. 1 will be announced later this morning/early afternoon, so we can go ahead and wrap up the series on a Friday. Without any further excuses, let's take a look at who I believe made the second-biggest new impact for UT this spring:
OFFENSE -- ANTONIO "TINY" RICHARDSON SO. OFFENSIVE TACKLE
One of the biggest victorious in-state battles in recent memory resulted in Richardson deciding to wear orange and white a year or so ago over schools such as Georgia, Alabama and Southern Cal. Then came Tiny's freshman year where he [unfortunately] played sporadically and failed to redshirt.
As poor as the Vols' offensive line was in 2011, he either should have played much more or redshirted, in my opinion. But neither happened, so here we are entering Richardson's sophomore season with a bevy of excitement for a kid who hasn't proven anything. His massive frame suggests he could be a star. His interest out of high school suggests he could be a star. His attitude and leadership suggests he could be a star. Now, all that's left is the most important part -- for him to prove it.
Richardson showed flashes this spring. With a new coaching staff in Knoxville, Sam Pittman decided to insert the talented sophomore into the fire at left tackle, moving incumbent starter Dallas Thomas down to left guard. The move worked brilliantly at times as Thomas settled in like a wily veteran. It wasn't uncommon for UT running backs to have their most success running to the left. But inconsistency plagued Richardson, who struggled with penalties and with just flat-out getting beat sometimes. On the final drive of the Orange & White game, teammate Willie Bohannon bowled over Richardson for a sack. It's the kind of breakdowns UT can't handle many of this season. It was a drive-killing play.
The bottom line is Richardson's youth and inexperience is going to lead to some mistakes. But his talent and ability should also lend itself to the Vols having a better offensive line with him a part of the starting five. Everybody has ticketed Richardson for greatness, but right now, he just needs to keep his head down and his tail in the weight room and film room. All indications are he is the kind of player who will do just that, and he is one we're all excited about come fall.
DEFENSE -- BYRON MOORE JR. SAFETY
After playing at Southern Cal and transferring to UT out of junior college, Moore was believed by many -- blush, blush -- to be ready to come in and immediately start in the secondary for the Vols.
That didn't happen.
The light was very slow to come on for Moore who battled weight issues, struggled to adapt to the speed of the game and bounced around between cornerback and safety. Toward the end of last season, Moore began to earn more and more playing time. This spring, he entered as a backup strong safety trying to unseat senior Rod Wilks and get in a good enough position to battle Brent Brewer once Brewer returned to action from a torn ACL.
Moore did that and more. He quickly jumped Wilks into the starting role and was impressive at times in a new, more physical secondary under Derrick Ansley and Josh Conklin. Moore isn't threatening to be an All-SEC player or anything, but he is talented enough to be successful at strong safety, and his size lends itself to him being a physical, ball-hawking presence. One safety position is set with Brian Randolph, but the strong safety battle will be very intriguing to watch come fall with Moore, Wilks, Brewer and newcomer LaDarrell McNeil competing.
Moore took the reins and separated himself this spring, which was encouraging for the Vols to see. It's very important that he continues to learn the scheme and doesn't get lost out there trying to play a position that is relatively new to him. But he at least earned himself meaningful snaps.