Beyond left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, linebacker A.J. Johnson is the Tennessee junior with the most difficult decision to make after this season about whether to stay for a final year with the Vols or enter the NFL draft. The SEC's leading tackler in 2012 leads the Vols with 84 tackles this season. According to ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper, the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder is the No. 2 inside linebacker among underclassmen and fifth or sixth overall at the position.
"A.J. Johnson's just a tackling machine," Kiper said Thursday. "He's got great instincts. He's obviously protected by the defensive line a bit, but blockers don't necessarily get to him that often. I've watched enough of him over the last few years to see a kid who's got a chance to be a good NFL player."
KNOXVILLE - For Tennessee's offensive line, that was more like it.
After consecutive poor performances against Alabama and Missouri, the Volunteers' veteran unit paved the way for 226-yard performance on the ground in last week's loss to Auburn.
Yet there also were the three first-half false-start penalties, the two Auburn sacks and the three failed runs in short-yardage situations in the second half.
With just two games remaining after this week's open date, the Vols' linemen believe they've yet to put everything together and play their best game as a unit.
"I feel like we've had times, but I feel like we need to become more consistent, especially going into these last two weeks," center James Stone said. "We need to be consistent for this football team. I feel like when we play with consistency, our offense is able to execute.
"When we have mishaps and pre-snap errors and mistakes like that, that really sets our offense back, and we need to be consistent so our offense can lean on the offensive line."
Starters since they were true freshmen, Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ja'Wuan James are approaching the conclusion of their Tennessee careers, and the trio would like nothing more than to beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky and notch a bowl win to achieve their first winning season.
After that, it's off to the NFL for those three, and junior left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson figures to follow suit from a line that has "an awful lot of ability," according to ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper.
"I've watched Tennessee a lot," Kiper said Thursday during a conference call. "I've spent a lot of time watching Tennessee because you focus on one player a couple of hours and you move on to the next. That's a lot of Tennessee viewing when you have four guys that are going to be in the NFL off that line."
There's a decision ahead for Richardson, who has the highest projection among the Vols' front line. The 6-foot-6, 327-pound All-SEC selection was on the short end of his highly anticipated matchup with South Carolina's defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in October, though Richardson controlled Clowney in the second half of Tennessee's win.
He's struggled with some false starts, and Georgia's Ray Drew and Auburn true freshman Carl Lawson beat him for sacks.
"Antonio Richardson's had a good year, not necessarily great," Kiper said. "He's had a few hiccups along the way, a mistake here and there in terms of pass protection or a penalty or what have you. Whether he's a left tackle or a right tackle, that will be debated by NFL GMs and personnel people."
According to Kiper, Richardson is the fourth-ranked draft prospect among underclassmen. Five of the first 19 picks in the 2013 draft were offensive tackles, and Kiper said as many as seven could hear their names called on the draft's opening night in April. This tackle class is loaded, but there's a handful of juniors who may stay for their senior years.
Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan both chose to stay for their final seasons and are locks to be first-rounders, and Alabama junior Cyrus Kouandjio is 18th in Kiper's overall rankings. Richardson is among a strong group of underclassmen that includes Iowa's Brandon Scherff, Auburn's Greg Robinson, Florida State's Cameron Erving and LSU's La'El Collins.
Kiper liked what he's seen from James, who's started every game of his Vols career and elected to come back for his final season despite receiving a solid mid-round grade last season.
"Ja'Wuan James, I think, is the most underrated," he said. "He's got a strong base. He maintains his frame between the defensive end and the quarterback very effectively. You watch Richardson, and you're watching nothing happening on that right side, because [James] is eliminating that right-side pass-rusher.
"To me, that's important, even though you say, 'Well, he's not a left tackle.' He does a heck of a job. Right now I wouldn't have any problem giving him a second-round grade."
Fulton, who figures to have a long NFL career as a road-grading guard, is in the "third- or fourth-round mix," and Stone is a mid-round prospect, Kiper said.
For now, though, there's still business to which to attend for an offensive line that received plenty of preseason accolades and entered the season with sky-high expectations, both from themselves and externally.
The Vols are eighth in the SEC in rushing and averaging 25 more yards per game this season despite the heavy production losses at receiver, tight end and quarterback, but the line has allowed 12 sacks and 49 tackles for loss in 10 games this year compared to eight and 52 in all of 2012.
"I feel like we just go to work every day no matter what," James said. "I respect everybody in the room. No matter if we're doing bad or good, we're still putting in the same amount of work, so we've just got to go out there and perform on a consistent basis."
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