KNOXVILLE - A couple of offseason surgical procedures made Antonio "Tiny" Richardson a very large spectator for Tennessee's spring practices.
The Volunteers' likable left tackle hardly has been inactive, though.
And though Ja'Wuan James, Tennessee's talented senior right tackle, has manned Richardson's spot the last couple of weeks of practices as the Vols' experiment and make contingency plans with their offensive line, there's little question who's playing that spot.
"Tiny got a little nervous," James joked after Wednesday morning's practice.
"I'd tell him, 'Dog, that's mine,'" Richardson added.
As you might expect with a player who very well could be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft should he elect to declare after his junior season, first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said he's "very eager" to finally see Richardson in action.
"I've said, 'Man, for one person who's played very little football, all I hear is about Tiny,'" Jones said Wednesday. "He chuckles and he can take it in stride. We've challenged him from a mental standpoint, and he's done a great job."
Down to a career-low 320 pounds, Richardson admitted it's been both difficult and frustrating to watch the Vols adapt to Jones and first-year offensive line coach Don Mahoney, but the Nashville product has been active in both helping his fellow offensive linemen when he can and leading the side workout sessions with Tennessee's other injured and hobbled players.
Still, though, Richardson's eager to be coached in the heat of practice.
"Even during the offseason and even when I was doing a little more, Coach Mo, he's been doing a good job of coaching me up, watching film, correcting me, critiquing everything that I do," Richardson said. "I've been getting coached, but getting a full practice of coaching, that'd be really great. I think that playing tackle is a lot of mental.
"I'm getting a lot of mental reps right now, and that's the biggest thing, watching other guys, critiquing what they're doing and just trying to be a leader."
When the Vols practice outdoors on Haslam Field, the injured players are banished to the corner of the offensive field, which is sealed off with an orange construction fence with laminated labels dubbing it "The Hole." The non-stop workouts typically consist of abdominal work, and the players always are holding a weight bar as part of the routine.
When Richardson's not there, he's near his offensive line teammates taking mental notes and giving pointers and encouragement where needed, and during scrimmages, he's stood with the offensive assistant coaches 20 or so yards behind the line of scrimmage.
"He's a football player," Jones said. "He loves the game of football. He's always coming up to me, 'Coach, did you see this? Did you see this? Did you see this video?'
"He's in Coach Mahoney's office all the time. He's in my office, and we've demanded a lot from him when he's not taking the mental reps, being down with [strength coaches] Mike Szerszen and Dave Lawson. It's time to get him on the field and see what he can do."
Richardson expects to return to full health by June.
"It's been hard just sitting back watching my teammates, but they do a good job of making sure we're in shape," he said. "We have something we call 'Muscle Beach,' where we never put the bar down and we're constantly moving and constantly moving. Every day I'm getting my money's worth out there going hard with all the other injured guys, so I'm still getting better, getting mental reps, watching film and things of that nature.
"But I can't wait to be back."
Contact Patrick Brown at [email protected] or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.