University of Tennessee Volunteers
Pearl-Cohn High School
Ensworth High School
The once dominant Tennessee Volunteers just concluded their fourth consecutive season compiling records of 5-7. When a team manages just twenty victories over their last 48 games, talk of that squad having two potentially blue chip draft prospects leads to the old adage – seeing is believing.
With bookends like the 336-pound Richardson at left tackle and the 320-pound Ja'Wuan James handling right tackle duties, incoming head coach Butch Jones knew that he would have two building blocks to turn around the Volunteers' fortunes. Only, the coach did not realize that his prized junior blocker would follow the senior blocker and play in the National Football League next season, rather than clear out rush lanes for Tennessee ball carriers.
Affectionately nicknamed "Tiny," Richardson is anything but that – possessing a wide-bodied frame that stand close to six feet-six inches, large mitts for hands (10 1/2-inches), great arm length (35-inches) and the wingspan of a condor (87 1/2-inches).
As for power in the trenches, Richardson opened eyes at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine when he put up the weights (225-pound bench press) 36 times. Of the 335-plus players that attended the event in Indianapolis, only one other player, North Carolina center Russ Bodine (42) had a better performance.
Richardson spent most of his childhood in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, before moving to Nashville when he was age 15. He would go on to develop into one of the state's most coveted recruits during his playing days at Ensworth, a Nashville private school, from 2008 to 2010. During his junior year in 2009, he led an offensive line that did not give up any sacks.
Scout.com called Richardson the nation's 18th-best offensive tackle and ESPN had him rated eighth, as both of those services accorded him four-star prospect status. He also earned All-State Division 2-AA and All-Mid State honors. He was named to the Mobile Press-Register's Southeast 120 team, where he ranked 25th.
Midway through his senior season in 2010, Richardson transferred to Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School for academic reasons. Due to TSSAA rules, he was ineligible to play for Pearl-Cohn, as the standard practice requires a student to sit out one year after transferring within 20 miles. Even though Richardson would never play a down for Pearl-Cohn High, Firebirds head coach Tony Brunetti kept the youngster heavily involved with the team and also with in the recruiting process of the state's top football prospect.
Richardson completed his transfer from Ensworth to Pearl-Cohn on Wednesday during the final week of the regular season. "I think it bothered him not to be able to play for Ensworth," Brunetti said. "His father brought him to a situation where he felt like I would guide him in the right direction because I've dealt with a lot of kids."
Recruits still flocked to the school, even if it was to observe Richardson standing on the sidelines. He did manage to play in one more contest before joining the University of Tennessee program in 2011. Selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he also competed for the 2011 U.S. Under-19 National Team in the Team USA vs. The World game.
When Richardson first arrived on the Tennessee campus, even the veteran players could see that he was that "special" player – a big, barrel-chested lineman with wide, rounded shoulders and long, lean arms. He had just a little "baby fat" in his mid-section, but also displayed a tremendous powerbase and huge legs. From the first moment he stepped on the field for one-on-one drills during 2011 fall camp, he showed Vols defenders that he had the size and strength to compete early. The coaching staff was also impressed with his lateral agility and felt that he could possibly play four of the five offensive line positions.
The 2011 campaign did not turn out as Richardson had expected. After sitting out his high school senior campaign, he faced another year of relative inactivity, as he was relegated to duties with the field goal and PAT units. Trying to do whatever he could to get on the field, he somehow managed the coaches to put him into the Kentucky and Vanderbilt games for a few plays as a fullback.
During the 2012 off-season, Richardson convinced the coaching staff that he is an extremely hard worker and a player that really enjoys the game. For the team not to give this true road grader more opportunities as a run blocker would certainly not be in their best interests, he thought. After all, even his own teammates were praising him for being athletic enough to get downfield and he finish off his blocks, something he did with a vengeance throughout spring drills.
Looking at 6-foot-6, 329-pound offensive lineman like Richardson takes a lot more than a passing glance. The former U.S. Army All-American would go on to be one of the most imposing men in the Orange and White when he was finally allowed to step onto Haslam Field as a starting left tackle in 2012.
Still, Richardson still recalls when he was unable to see the field in a starting role as a freshman during the 2011 campaign. Something that was a growing experience - mentally, not physically of course, "2011 was all mental for me," Richardson said prior to his sophomore season opener. "I learned a lot and now that I know what I am doing, I am going to play fast. That was the thing last year: I wasn't able to play as fast."
The Nashville native had aspirations of starring in the trenches from the moment he shook the earth in Knoxville, but was unable to budge the anchor that was junior left tackle Dallas Thomas. "It was a reality check," said Richardson of his freshman season. "I thought I was going to come in and get a better opportunity than I did. But I didn't. It humbled me a little more. I was able to sit in the background and learn from the other guys."
Fast forward to the 2012 season, and Richardson couldn't be ignored any longer. The sophomore opened spring practice as the starting left tackle with former incumbent, Brandon Thomas sliding inside to the guard position following a stress fracture in the foot of fellow buffet bankruptor Zach Fulton. "It is really just trying to five the best five offensive linemen and figuring out where to fit the best five," former head coach Derek Dooley said at the time of the shift. "We know Dallas is one of our best five. He has proven that. As long as he stays that course.
"Working in Antonio, working in Mack (Crowder), working in (Kyler) Kerbyson, working in Allen Posey. And, of course, James (Stone) is always in that rotation. We are doing a lot of rotating to try and figure it out."
Thomas, himself, has always been curious about the guard position, but could only watch from a distance from his island at tackle. "I have always been really curious to get down there and see what it is like," Thomas said. "I have always looked at it and I thought it might be fun because they always get the little knock-down blocks with the center. I always wanted to check it out."
Richardson was just grateful for the opportunity that Thomas was willing to give him with such a selfless approach to the move. "It shows that he was willing to do whatever," Richardson said. "When they said they wanted Dallas to slide in and play at guard I was really excited about how humble he was because it was my opportunity to come in."
If anything, Thomas wanted to see the man they call "Tiny" on the field in order to help the team flourish in his senior season. "Whatever the team needs I am going to do it," Thomas said. "If they want me to play defense, then I would go over there without hesitation. It is just about being about the team and not just about yourself.
"We can't just look at me and not Tiny because he is fighting for a position, too. They want to look at Tiny too and they want to look at me at guard. I just look at it like we are both getting better." Dooley had preached "team first" as one of the organization's core values, and one would have to dig to find someone else to embodies the company motto more than Thomas.
"Dallas is a team guy, and I think he has a lot of trust in the coaching staff," Dooley said. "I think he has a lot of confidence in his abilities, which he should. The more guys we have like Dallas — he is a mature guy."
The move paid instant dividends. After the Vols had rushed for a miniscule 90.1 yards per game with Richardson in reserve during his freshman season, his rush lane blocks led to the team tacking on more than seventy yards per game running the ball in 2012 (160.3 ypg). The front wall seemed to feed off Richardson's aggression. The previous year, the line gave up 18 sacks, but the 2012 season would conclude with Vols quarterbacks being captured just eight times, the lowest figure in the Southeastern Conference and fifth-lowest in the nation.
By the time Butch Jones took control of the Tennessee program in 2013, he knew that any success the team had moving the ball would be with his two tackles creating havoc in the trenches. That was fine with Richardson, whose final grade of 90.21% was the second-best in the SEC, topped by only Jake Matthews of Texas A&M (91.42%). He delivered 119 key blocks/knockdowns on the way to receiving All-American and All-SEC recognition.
Having experience three of the team's four consecutive 5-7 seasons, Richardson decided that he was leaving school and filed paperwork to enter the 2014 NFL Draft in early December, becoming one of the first underclassmen to declare. Coach Butch Jones could not convince his star player to change his mind.
"I have truly loved every moment of being a Tennessee Volunteer and will always be a Vol For Life," Richardson said in a prepared statement. "As much as I have enjoyed my time at Tennessee, I have long dreamed of playing in the NFL and taking care of my family. After careful consideration, I have decided to forgo my senior year and enter the 2014 NFL Draft."
Richardson appeared in 36 games at Tennessee, starting his final 24 contests at the demanding left tackle position…Was charged with allowing just two quarterback sacks on 821 pass plays during his time as a starter, as he delivered 208 key blocks/knockdowns and 32 touchdown-resulting blocks combined for the last two seasons.