Breakout Vols: offensive line

This is the fifth in a series of articles examining possible "breakout" players for the 2012 Tennessee football team. Today's installment focuses on the offensive line.

In the 47 years since Tennessee switched to two-platoon football in 1964 only one player had started at the critical left offensive tackle position as a true sophomore ... until now.

Dallas Thomas started at left tackle on a 2010 O-line that had to replace all five starters from the year before.

Conversely, Antonio Richardson will be starting at left tackle for a 2012 O-line that returns all five starters from the previous season. He earned this honor, interestingly enough, by beating out the afore-mentioned Dallas Thomas in spring practice.

Simply put, sophomores don't start at left tackle for Tennessee. Only three players in the two-platoon era have managed to start at left tackle as redshirt sophomores — Jason Layman in 1993, Chad Clifton in 1997 and Michael Munoz in 2002. Layman went on to play seven NFL seasons. Clifton just completed his 12th NFL season. Munoz was a four-year starter and 2004 All-American.

Given all of the above, the fact Richardson will be starting at left tackle as a true sophomore this fall is pretty impressive. The fact he beat out Dallas Thomas to win the job makes it even more impressive. Clearly, Richardson is Tennessee's most likely breakout performer in the offensive line for 2012.

Dallas Thomas is in select company as one of few Vols who started at left tackle as a sophomore.
(Danny Parker/
Because he is entrusted with protecting the quarterback's blind side, the left tackle has to be an outstanding pass protector. Incredibly, some of the greatest blockers in Vol history lacked the pure protection skills to play on the left side. Tim Irwin, who spent 14 distinguished seasons in the NFL, was a right tackle at Tennessee. Bruce Wilkerson, a 12-year NFL veteran, played right tackle for the Vols. Antone Davis, the eighth player picked in the 1991 NFL Draft, was strictly a right tackle during his time on The Hill.

Obviously, starting at left tackle is a big deal and starting at left tackle as a true sophomore is a huge deal. Then again, Antonio Richardson is a huge guy. Listed at 6-feet-6 and 325 pounds, he looks even bigger than that. His nickname, Tiny, is the ultimate irony.

Even more impressive than Richardson's size, however, is the fact he won the left tackle position in spring practice so decisively that two-year starter Thomas was moved inside to left guard.

You don't have to be a respected offensive line coach to recognize that Richardson, a top-100 prospect as a senior at Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School, has a chance to be special. But it helps.

"He is very talented, very physical," Tennessee line coach Sam Pittman said recently. "There are a lot of things we need to work on with him, as well as a lot of other guys. But there was a reason everyone in the country wanted him, and we're glad we have him."

As perhaps the most celebrated member of Tennessee's 2011 signing class, Richardson was supposed to contribute from Day 1. He didn't. Stuck behind first-team tackles Thomas and JaWuan James, he rarely saw the field last fall until earning some backup action in November.

"The O-line, especially that left tackle position, is just a learning experience," Richardson said. "It's not a position where you can hop in there and just say go."

That's obvious. Otherwise, he wouldn't be the second Vol to start at left tackle as a true sophomore in the two-platoon era.

Have a listen to Richardson after the Orange & White game back on April 21:

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