Protecting the franchise

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If there's a Southeastern Conference program that knows the difficulty of navigating the league schedule with the No. 1 quarterback on the bench with an injury it's Tennessee.

From Tony Robinson to Jerry Colquitt to Todd Helton to Erik Ainge to Tyler Bray, the Volunteers have certainly had to endure their share of bumps of bruises.

With Rocky Top News football preview cover boy Bray running the show, the Tennessee players are quite confident they can throw big numbers on the scoreboard. After he suffered a broken thumb last October against Georgia, the Vols got a taste of how things are different without their main guy.

"It's a huge difference," right tackle JaWuan James said at SEC Media Days. "We don't want anybody to get injured, especially a key guy like that. But, I mean it changes the whole game, leadership-wise in the huddle and just knowing the confidence behind you that you've got Tyler behind you making plays. It just makes the game much easier."

Keeping No. 8 upright and giving him time to make good decisions with the football are key if Tennessee wants to bounce back from a 5-7 season in 2011. Protecting his blind side will be the most inexperienced starter — Antonio "Tiny" Richardson.

Bray is poised to take his game to another level if James, Richardson & Co. can do their part. The gunslinger didn't bat an eye when explaining his confidence level in Richardson.

"I've got all the trust in the world," said Bray, who has thrown for 3,832 yards with 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 16 games. "The offensive line coaches have prepared him to get him where he needs to be. I have all the faith in those guys and they're going to keep me protected."

Ja'Wuan James knows a thing or two about playing tackle in the SEC.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Dallas Thomas will get the nod as the new left guard with Zach Fulton likely at right guard. Preseason camp and practices should be full of competition at center between Alex Bullard, Mack Crowder and James Stone. With five starts under his belt and a slim-downed frame, Marcus Jackson will push for playing time at both guard spots.

A Mt. Pleasant, Tenn., native and Pearl-Cohn High graduate, Richardson was a four-star prospect and aU.S. Army All-American Bowl participant. However, as coach Derek Dooley eluded to several times last season, the knowledge from the neck up wasn't where it needed to be to put the 6-6, 332-pounder on the edge as a freshman, especially when another freshman (Jackson) was at left guard part of the year.

"Well, what set Antonio back was he was hurt last year," Dooley said. "He came in last season where we felt like he as going to be able to be able to help us as a true freshman, then he missed the first six weeks. It's very difficult on the offensive line to make up that ground that he lost. But, he came in this spring and was further along than I anticipated from a knowledge standpoint, from a dependability standpoint.

"What Tiny brings is that he has incredible energy. He just walks in that huddle and energizes the place. He has great leadership capabilities. So, his presence is not only felt in his abilities to block, but it's also felt in the huddle. So, he's been a good addition for me. He certainly has a long way to go. He hasn't been out in the fire. He hasn't been sitting there on third-and-eight and have one of the top pass rushers in college football coming at him. He's going to have some growing pains."

The slate features a variety of skill sets from opposing defensive ends. Richardson will have his hands full as the middle man between the tackler and the ball carrier against ends like South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Alabama's Damion Square and Florida's Sharrif Floyd.

After begin an Under Armour All-American at North Gwinnett (Ga.) High, James enrolled at Tennessee in January of 2010. The 6-foot-6, 323-pounder wasted no time showing why the Vol coaching staff never gave up on the one-time Alabama commit, staring him at right tackle Day 1. He is yet to smell the bench.

With 25 straight starts under his belt, there are few in Knoxville whose advice to Richardson could hit home more directly.

"Definitely," James said at SEC Media Days. "I talk to Antonio a lot because I remember how I felt going out there my first time against UT-Martin. I was scared just not knowing what's going to happen. I try to talk to him to let him know to just go out there and 'You know what you're capable of. I know what you're capable of and the coaches do too and that's why you're out there. So, just go out there and play your hardest.'"

Richardson started lining up with the first-team O-line at the onset of spring practices. So, James is starting to see the upside of his fellow bookend.

"It's through the roof. He has so much potential," James said. "He's a freak athlete — fast, strong, big. The sky's the limit for Tiny. He's going to go as far as he wants to go."

Get Richardson's thoughts on playing left tackle for the Vols in the video below:

Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the InsideTennessee team July 2011.

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