'Banner' day for Richard?

One Tennessee football player isn't expecting to see any upraised "Welcome Home" banners when he returns to his native state Saturday. Upraised middle fingers maybe ... but not banners.

The home folks aren't exactly happy with Vladimir Richard. A native of Sunrise, Fla., he's a sophomore guard for the Vols, who face No. 4 Florida Saturday afternoon at "The Swamp" in Gainesville. Making matters worse, Richard committed to the Gators as a senior defensive tackle at Piper High School in 2004.

When Florida fired head coach Ron Zook, however, Richard reneged and committed to Tennessee. Even a three-hour in-home sales pitch from Urban Meyer, Zook's successor, couldn't sway him. When Richard signed with Tennessee in February of 2005, some Floridians supported him but the die-hard Gator fans who loved him a few months earlier now hated his guts.

"They were furious," he recalled this week. "In '05 when we went down there I seen all types of stuff. The fans were mad, especially that I came to a rival, but that's a part of the game."

Richard pays his second visit to The Swamp Saturday. He's expecting another memorable afternoon.

"Man, this game means a lot to me personally," he said. "I want it badly. My teammates know I want it, even though I haven't really expressed how much I want it. We're doing everything we can to go out and get this win."

Three years after he reneged, Richard still gets some static back home about his switch from the Gators to the Vols.

"Yeah, I still hear about it," he said, grinning slightly. "I don't think I'll stop hearing about until I move on into the business world or the next level or something."

After a pause, he added: "Probably it still won't change. I hear about it all the time when I'm home. I'll be in a Mall and I'll hear somebody say, 'Aw, he's at Tennessee' and stuff like that. But it's nothing too serious."

After redshirting as a Vol freshman in 2005, Richard's career took an unexpected turn in 2006. Head coach Phillip Fulmer asked him to move from defensive tackle to offensive guard. Richard, who had never played offense, was dumbfounded.

"In my heart I was crushed," he said. "That's something I never thought I would be. In my mind I don't look like an offensive lineman. And I didn't know what's the first thing to do as an offensive lineman."

Richard accepted the reassignment, then found out just how little he knew about offensive line play during a 2006 season he describes as "rough." Having survived that ordeal, however, the 6-4, 290-pounder has worked his way into the playing rotation at his new outpost.

"If I would've came out every day just pissed off and not working hard I wouldn't be where I am now," he said. "I'm glad I started taking steps immediately to get better at offensive line, instead of waiting a month or longer and being mad."

Although Florida is a reigning national champ and Richard is a backup guard at Tennessee, he isn't second-guessing his college choice.

"It was like family at Florida when Coach Zook was there," he recalled. "When Coach Zook got fired I didn't know what Coach Urban Meyer was about. He's a good person but I just felt like I couldn't really get to know what he was about in the three hours he was at my house.

"Tennessee had been recruiting me before that, and I just felt more comfortable going to Tennessee than staying at home."

Odds are, "home" won't be a very comfortable place this Saturday.

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