Changing of the guard

A new starter at guard upgraded the talent level of Tennessee's offensive line last weekend vs. Mississippi State. Perhaps more importantly, he upgraded the Vols' energy level.

Vladimir Richard might not be the most technically proficient blocker on the Big Orange roster but he's surely the most emotionally charged. The 6-4, 300-pound junior plays the game with a child-like enthusiasm that seemed to infect his teammates last Saturday night. That enthusiasm could be critical this weekend against second-ranked Alabama.

"Vlad's very energetic," Vol quarterback Nick Stephens said. "He wants to play. He's hungry and he wants to win. All of that does carry over. Having a guy like that on the field, we appreciate that very much. That's the way he is, and we do draw off of him. It does help on Saturday."

Tennessee's offensive coordinator appreciates Richard's passion for the game, as well.

"He got an opportunity to start and all week he was fired up about it," Dave Clawson recalled. "I thought he brought a lot of energy to the field for us. And he played really well, too. Maybe going in the game knowing you're going to play and knowing when you're going to play – the first snap -- gave him some confidence."

Naturally, Tennessee's head coach was thrilled to see the high-energy Richard give the Vol offense such an emotional lift.

"Vlad is a really incredible person," Phillip Fulmer said. "He brought so much energy and excitement to that group, and played the game like it's supposed to be played Saturday. I was really pleased with how he responded to his first start. It wasn't because of injury. He played the best (compared to Jacques McClendon, the guy he replaced). All he needed was consistency. I think he can be a great one; I really do."

Richards was so excited last Saturday night that he occasionally punctuated a big play by doing a little dance. Stephens found the move amusing but isn't planning to emulate it.

"I try not to do that kind of stuff," the Vol quarterback said. "I think I might hurt myself if I tried to do it. And he's too big to be dancing like that. He's going to hurt somebody."

Richard was a highly regarded defensive line prospect when he signed with the Vols out of Sunrise, Fla., four years ago. He moved to guard two years ago, however, and has been gradually learning the nuances of offensive line play ever since.

"He'd never played in the offensive line at all," Fulmer noted. "He's been a work in progress who has played well at times. He's just now fully understanding how to finish, how to do all the things technique-wise to be a good lineman.

"Physically, he's got all the tools in the world. I think it's just going to take off for him from this point on."

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