Deeper, Stronger - The 2012 Position Previews: Offensive Line; Is Tiny A Big Answer?

Dallas Thomas (right) shifts down from left tackle to left guard in order to get Tiny Richardson on the field for the Vols. This is one of several changes Derek Dooley has employed since last season to try to fix the fragile unit.

The following contains an excerpt from the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 Magazine, on sale now. This is the first of two previews this week on Tennessee's unit previews. Want more? Well, the link's up there.

A year ago, the Tennessee Volunteers had one of the most abysmal seasons in their long and storied program history. Though the blame can be widely distributed throughout every facet of the football team, the offensive line certainly shares more than its share.

From historically horrible rushing numbers to multiple mental breakdowns, a position on which UT built its reputation went from bad to progressively worse in 2011. Changes were inevitable, and those came when Harry Hiestand jumped ship to Notre Dame, taking a potential difficult decision out of Derek Dooley's hands. When Dooley snatched up former North Carolina offensive line coach Sam Pittman, he called it an upgrade at the position. Like many spots, the Vols are out of excuses now.

But that isn't the only change that has happened since last year. The Vols also have committed to starting former Nashville (Ensworth HS) standout Antonio "Tiny" Richardson at left tackle. Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 magazine takes a look at the change and what other things should positively impact UT's re-commitment to having a solid running game.

The early returns on Pittman's rapport with his linemen are positive, especially after the disconnect suffered with Hiestand and his propensity to unleash verbal assaults on his players. The Vols' linemen also appeared much stronger than a year ago, which is to be expected after being able to go through the same strength and conditioning program for two years for the first time in any of their careers. Also, a shake-up along the offensive front led to better production and a renewed excitement this past spring.

Pittman inserted rising sophomore sensation Antonio "Tiny" Richardson at left tackle and shifted elder statesman Dallas Thomas -- the unit's lone senior -- to left guard. The duo led to coaches believing that side of the line would be a team strength instead of the weakness it was last year. Richardson looks the part at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds and players also gravitate toward his positive attitude and leadership qualities -- but he had too many mental errors this past spring and needs to clean that up to reach his massive talent's potential. Richardson and Thomas were stabilizing forces for a group that drew much more positive reviews from coaches after the shuffle. ...

The depth at tackle is a little more concerning for UT behind Richardson and [Ja'Wuan] James. If one of those two was injured, Thomas almost certainly would move back outside and [James] Stone or [Marcus] Jackson would move into the lineup. Redshirt freshman Alan Posey and sophomore Marques Pair are being groomed for depth at tackle, but neither is probably ready for live bullets in SEC play. With no offensive line commitments in last year's recruiting class, the Vols desperately need to land a couple of tackle prospects in the next class and already have one committed in Cleveland, Tenn., product Austin Sanders.

The talent is certainly there to be successful along the offensive front, and now UT has a coach who seems to connect with the players a little more. Though it would be way too premature to consider the O-line a strength, the Vols need a massive improvement there this season if they're going to seriously compete against the contenders in this league.

As always is the case when you write unit previews in the summer, there are positional changes, and the move of Stone back to center probably means he wouldn't slide down to guard if Thomas had to move back to tackle because of an injury to one of the Vols' two starters, but the questions/worries/concerns remain.

The experiment of inserting Richardson into the starting lineup and bumping Thomas down to guard clearly looked like the best thing UT could have done this spring. Though the running game wasn't fixed by any means, it was drastically improved from a season ago [or, at least, it appeared to be in a Vols vs. Vols setting]. What do you guys think? Did Dooley and Pittman have to do anything to get Richardson in the lineup? Is that expecting too much of a rising sophomore who played very sparingly last season?

Also, what do you think happens if -- God forbid -- Tiny or James gets injured? What happens with tackle depth then? The Vols have addressed some depth issues there already in this class with Sanders and Dan Skipper, who appear to project as tackles, but neither of those guys can help this year as they'll both be seniors in high school.

While there were several reasons to be excited about the improvement of the line this spring, there are remaining questions. The Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 magazine attempts to address the questions and highlight the steps forward in what will be one of the most pivotal storylines of this season and of Dooley's Tennessee head coaching tenure.

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Get the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition for $19.99, the Kindle version for $9.99, or the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99.

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