HOOVER, Ala. - The overwhelming expectation is this season will be Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's last at Tennessee, but the Volunteers' star left tackle pumped the brakes on the notion he'll enter the NFL draft after his junior year.
The 6-foot-6, 318-pounder said Wednesday morning during the first of more than a dozen interviews at SEC media days that's simply focused on this season and nothing beyond.
"I'm worried about winning an SEC championship," Richardson said. "The NFL doesn't even matter in my mind right now. We've got an offensive line who could all play in the NFL, but our focus right now is winning games."
The Nashville product did admit, though, that he's "in the process" of taking out an insurance policy, as many NFL-bound typically do. Richardson may be the Vols' most talented player, and he's part of a veteran offensive line that's the cornerstone of a rebuilding offense. Though he sat out spring practice recovering from offseason surgery, Tennessee's run-heavy offseason workout program has him down to the lowest weight of his college career.
"The thing is if you don't perform, you're not going to get there," Richardson said. "So it's like if I don't perform this year, or the next year, whenever I decide to leave, I'm not going to get there. I have to focus on my performance before I can really focus on the NFL."
Not so fast
Ja'Wuan James has started all 37 games of his Tennessee career, so it'd be natural for him to think he's doing more right than wrong.
Not so fast, first-year coach Butch Jones told his senior right tackle.
"Coach Jones, that's what he preaches: physicality and effort," James said inside the main media room at SEC media days on Wednesday afternoon. "The biggest thing is effort, though, and that's why I feel like if I could talk to anybody and tell them what they're going to see this year, they're going to see a Tennessee team they haven't seen play with this much effort. That's all they preach.
"Even in spring practice, from day one to day 15, I saw a change in myself even. I thought I played hard, and Coach Jones [says], 'No, you don't play hard. Let me show you here and here.' You're going to see effort, I feel like that's going to take us a long way this year.
Jones told the reporters in the main media room he's been able to build good relationships with some of Tennessee's former coaches, particularly Philip Fulmer, Johnny Majors and Doug Dickey.
"Coach Fulmer and Coach Majors have been a tremendous resource," he said. "Coach Dickey, as well. They're Tennessee football. The more I can speak with them, the more they can come around, the better."
Tennessee's coaching staff pushed defensive tackle Daniel McCullers as hard as any player during spring practice, and the Vols hope the slimmed senior -- the media guide lists McCullers at 351 pounds -- can become a disruptive force for a defense devoid of playmakers.
"He lost all that weight, and now he's got a personality," offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Dan used to be always be quiet, but now he's working hard. That's a man. I've never seen anybody on the football field like that, and now that he's lost I think like 20 or 30 pounds, he's moving better on the field. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do against some people this year.
"I don't know his exact weight, but he is moving. He's not far behind in sprints and things like that."
Defensive end Jacques Smith said McCullers now is "getting muscles," including "abs."
"He's looking the part now," he added.
Jones singled out linebacker Curt Maggitt, who's expected to be ready for the start of training camp after tearing knee ligaments against Missouri last November, for his leadership, saying the junior "continuously has been a leader and a voice of our football team." ... Defensive back Eric Gordon, who did not practice with the team during spring, is not listed on the Vols' media guide roster. Instead, he's listed among Tennessee's "lost lettermen" from last season's team. ... Jones suggested he would "mix the tempo" of his offense by slowing it down if he needed to protect his defense.
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