Antonio Richardson aims to be large leader on UT's offensive line

Antonio Richardson aims to be large leader on UT's offensive line

August 26th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Antonio Richardson (74) during the first day of spring practice for the Vols at Haslam Field on the University of Tennessee campus, Mar. 22, 2012.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

SIZE AND STRENGTH

At 6-foot-6 and 332 pounds, sophomore Antonio Richardson is built like an NFL offensive lineman. He's as strong as one, too. Here are his weight-room numbers from the summer:

Bench-press max - 460 pounds

Squat max - 540 pounds

Power clean max - 360 pounds

Reps benching 225 pounds - 33 times

KNOXVILLE - Antonio Richardson is one of the biggest players on Tennessee's football team.

Naturally, there's some intimidation in being a 6-foot-6, 332-pound tackle.

In conversation the Volunteers sophomore is a well-spoken, engaging and respectful young man. Just don't expect a similar demeanor when you watch him play.

"When people ask, 'Antonio, are you mean?' I kind of take it offensively," Richardson said, his tone going from relaxed to serious. "This is what I do. This is what I love.

"I can turn it off. When I'm with you guys, I'm a gentleman. But when I'm out there on the field, it's time to play."

It's how Richardson, appropriately given the nickname "Tiny" during his years at Nashville's Ensworth School, was raised. Yet it took time and a challenging upbringing to develop the on-off switch. Always the biggest kid on the block, Richardson drew plenty of attention.

He "mostly" lived in the projects with his brother and mother until he was 10 years old. At 15, he moved from Mount Pleasant, a small town southwest of Columbia in southern middle Tennessee, to Nashville to live with his father, Lanny. It's that time living in the projects with his mom and brother when Richardson first had his attitude tested.

"When I was little, up to when I was about 10 years old when I lived in the project, me and my little brother, we used to have to fight a lot," he said. "My mom was a really good Christian lady, and she used to always tell us, 'Don't fight, don't fight.' I never started a fight, but there'd always be kids that wanted to see what this kid's about.

"As I got older and more mature, and as those kids got more mature, we started to respect each other."

Despite his size - or maybe because of it - Richardson said he "always got picked on." It took time, he said, to become comfortable with himself and even more time to fill out the frame. The confidence began building, and Richardson learned to handle his size and himself.

"Growing up some, I had anger-management issues," he said. "As I got older and more mature, I learned how to control my aggression, and ... now I carry myself well. Growing up I had to learn how to control that.

"My father helped me a lot [with] my development as a young man over time. When it's time, it's time. When it's not time, you need to turn it off."

Richardson listed NBA stars Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan among his childhood heroes, but as he began to focus on football, watching offensive linemen became more appealing. He remembered seeing the Miami Dolphins take Michigan left tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft the spring of his freshman year of high school. Shortly after that, college coaches began taking notice.

"He's very big," said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Richardson's primary recruiter at Tennessee. "He's a large, well-mannered, excellent-character young man. First thing I noticed."

Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Miami, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, South Carolina, UCLA and Southern Cal offered Richardson scholarships. A senior-year transfer to Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School created some meaningless concerns about Richardson's ability to qualify. He announced his decision to sign for the Vols on signing day in 2011.

It's always difficult for a freshman lineman to make an immediate impact, and Richardson's offseason shoulder surgery wiped out most of training camp last August. His role was limited to the protection units on field goals and extra points and the installation of late-season package in which he lined up at fullback.

There was hardly any chance Richardson wouldn't be the Vols' starting left tackle in 2012, though, and Tennessee even moved Dallas Thomas, a fifth-year senior with 25 starts at left tackle, to guard to make room for the supersized sophomore. For a first-year starter, there's hardly the concern seen with most players in that spot.

"The expectation," head coach Derek Dooley said, "is that we don't worry about the left-tackle position and say, 'Uh-oh, kick Dallas back out there.' That's what we'd probably do if Antonio's struggling. It's nice to have a guy who played two years at left tackle that you can go to in the event Antonio is struggling.

"He's been doing great, though. Even though he's a first-year starter, he's a year into the program. That's not like a freshman coming in."

Beyond his potential on the field, Richardson is a player toward whom his teammates seem to gravitate. Wanting a guy that big on your side could be part of it. It's Richardson's personality, though, that draws people into his path.

"He's the most fun-loving kid around," Chaney said. "He loves football; he's passionate about the game; he's a great teammate. He's into the University of Tennessee, and if anybody says anything bad about this university and this football team, I'd want him on my side.

"In my opinion, Antonio Richardson has everything it takes to be an exceptional football player. Now with that, you have to temper it that this is going to be first-time starter that's going to make his mistakes, and we all have growing pains in whatever endeavor we go down. But I feel real comfortable with Tiny's work ethic and his character, and the way that young boy was raised is going to help him become a fantastic football player."

Richardson's weight-room numbers are astounding: His maxes are 460 pounds on bench press, 540 on squats and 360 on power cleans. He bench-pressed 225 pounds - the standard at the NFL combine - 33 times. For an offensive lineman, those strength numbers are hollow without the correct disposition.

But Richardson learned through his childhood the need to control it. When off the field, his father told him, be an example. On it, Richardson was reminded, turn it on.

Richardson believes how he was raised has helped him become who he is now: one of the most well-liked Vols who also possesses natural leadership skills.

"I have a great relationship with both of my parents," he said. "They're really good parents. Y'all see how I carry myself, and that's all because of them.

"It really ... helped me appreciate where I'm at now because I look back at how far I've come, and it really makes me appreciate and thank God every day for how far I've come. It makes me go harder every day knowing I can make a difference and help someone who's in that same situation that I was. I could help them get out of it just by telling them my story and them knowing my story."