KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee football program is expecting its incoming class of signees, ranked among the nation's best by multiple recruiting services and filled with touted players at needed positions, to provide a boost for next season.
The Volunteers could use the returns of a couple of current players, too.
Following Saturday night's season finale at Kentucky, left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and middle linebacker A.J. Johnson will start the process of deciding whether to jump to the NFL draft or stay at Tennessee for their senior years.
Hit hard by the early departures of receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and quarterback Tyler Bray after last season, the Vols certainly would like to have two of their most talented players back for 2014.
"No question, he does have a decision to make," defensive coordinator John Jancek said of Johnson following Wednesday's practice. "I think that's pretty obvious. It would be a tremendous impact to our program, and I think a great benefit to him personally, if he really takes a minute to step back and look at it.
"Those conversations will take place after the Kentucky game."
Neither player has addressedhis future during the season. Richardson has academic obligations that don't allow him to speak to the media during Monday's news conference or following Tuesday's practice. Johnson was on the list of requested players Tuesday but was not made available for interviews.
One or both could speak to the media following Saturday night's game in Lexington.
"I will provide whatever he will be willing to listen to," Vols offensive line coach Don Mahoney said regarding Richardson. "In a short period of time, we have gained mutual trust -- is probably the biggest word -- for each other and that type of thing.
"No matter whether it's been here or anywhere I'm at, I'm always about the best interest of an individual that I coach, whatever it may be. I definitely would be more than glad to sit and visit and talk with him and that kind of thing, and I think the world of him as a person and as a player as well, but really who he's all about. We'll see."
Richardson is a potential first-round pick, and multiple projections have him going in the late first round. The 6-foot-6, 320-pounder from Nashville is among the five best tackle prospects, though most analysts rate him behind Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio.
Richardson said at SEC media days in July he was in the process of taking out an insurance policy, which many NFL-bound underclassmen do, and he missed spring practice following surgery on his knee and took "maintenance days" off from practice during Tennessee's two open dates this season.
"He's a guy that puts a lot on himself to play perfect football," Mahoney said, "and I kept telling him all year long, 'Tiny, you're not going to play perfect, and you've got to understand that.'
"I think he took a deep breath, understood that and has done a good job as far as understanding our terminology of things and playing faster and more importantly snapping and clearing when a mistake occurs, and I think that's probably the biggest thing."
The situation is a little more unclear for Johnson, the Vols' leader tackling who's coming off perhaps his best game of the season against Vanderbilt. The 6-2, 240-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., had 13 tackles, two for loss, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup against the Commodores.
"Great," Jancek replied enthusiastically when asked about Johnson's play. "I don't know statistically where he was at, but man, he was all over the field. I was really excited. He played with a great deal of energy and passion and was from sideline to sideline."
As a sophomore, Johnson led the SEC with 138 tackles, and he's three stops away from another triple-digit tackling season. Most effective against the run, Johnson has been knocked for his pass coverage and lateral speed, but it's hard to argue with his production, though he lacks a wealth of disruptive plays and turnovers.
According to CBSSports.com's rankings, Johnson is the No. 2 inside linebacker prospect behind Florida State's Christian Jones, and though Tennessee gets Curt Maggitt back from his knee injury and is set to bring in at least six new linebackers, the Vols would welcome Johnson's return.
"Their leadership is really huge," Jancek said. "When you talk about them having the pulse of the team, those guys, when they say something, people are going to listen. That's going to be big."
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