HOOVER, Ala. — Through no fault of his own, Antonio "Tiny" Richardson was cast as something of a villain at SEC Media Days for merely daring to hold the majestic Jadeveon Clowney. He even had the gall to admit it.
“Stay inside. That’s how you don’t get caught, that’s how good linemen work,” the Tennessee junior and former Pearl-Cohn High School standout said with a smile.
More than 1,200 reporters, 14 coaches and 42 student athletes are bouncing around a hotel ballroom for three days, with everyone involved trapped in a vortex of Johnny Manziel and Clowney. Richardson was no exception, as the South Carolina defensive end called him a day earlier as a particularly worthy opponent, but also someone who can get away with a hold.
Just like that Richardson became part of the second biggest tent at this circus. He sharply deferred multiple questions about Manziel (“I’m here to talk about my team and my state”), but relished the chance to stand as the sudden foil to a man who will almost assuredly be the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Still, Richardson is considered the losing combatant, at least until a rematch — after holding Clowney in check for most of their 2012 meeting, the defensive end bulled past Richardson to cause a Tyler Bray fumble in a 38-35 South Carolina win. Richardson is emphatic about the play’s importance in creating his motivation.
“I’m not just saying this because I’m here in front of you guys. I watch that film at least once a week for motivation,” Richardson said.
Despite technically being a junior, new head coach Butch Jones has thrown a certain senior-level responsibility at the feet of Tiny and the Volunteer offensive line. They aren’t the flashiest set of role models, Richardson admits, but on an offense with an unknown starting quarterback, an iffy committee of running backs and a no-name receiving corps, Richardson and company find themselves in the spotlight by default.
“Obviously to have a returning offensive line that we have is very comforting,” Jones said during his session with print reporters.
“They have a lot of expectations going into this season, rightfully so. They have to obviously continue to develop on their pad level of coming off, playing with a greater sense of physicality. But they've done a great job and they've been great ambassadors for our football program.”
“I can tell I’ve had an affect on some of the younger guys,” Richardson said. “The thing about me is, I’m not the type of guy that’s always hollering in their ear though. Being a leader is about sometimes loving on guys. It’s about leading in different ways, learning about your teammates.”
Jones started his session bragging on the new Volunteer conditioning program and specifically 260 pounds of cumulative fat his roster has lost. A good hunk of that has come on the offensive line, where Richardson, senior Ja’Waun James and others have had to trim down significantly to keep pace in Jones’ new up-tempo spread attack.
“At first it seemed like it was almost impossible to get to the line as fast as Coach Jones wanted. But it’s just about getting up, getting to the ball and checking the sideline as soon as possible. I would say it’s harder for us because we’re bigger and carry more weight.”
Richardson’s Nashville roots afford him an added level of training in the offseason, specifically with former Titans still in the area. That includes former offensive lineman Brad Hopkins, currently a local sports talk personality.
“I call Brad Hopkins B-Hop, he’s like a big brother to me. I’ve sat down and watched a lot of film with him. He’s been a big brother figure for me, and it’s great to watch what he did well in his prime.”
Richardson also commended the hometown Vanderbilt Commodores for their recent success, which included a 41-18 blowout win over UT in Nashville last November.
“They’re on the come-up right now, but the thing is, we’re Tennessee and us losing to Vanderbilt, that happens every so often but that’s not happening again. I’m promising.”
So Nashville’s still a University of Tennessee town despite the ongoing “VanderBUILD” effort?
“Oh, the whole state of Tennessee is. It’s a Tennessee state,” Richardson said.