KNOXVILLE — Antonio Richardson readily admitted that last season was a humbling experience.
And he wasn’t even really a part of Tennessee’s much-maligned offensive line.
The 2011 season was bad for just about everyone in the Volunteers’ football program, but perhaps only coach Derek Dooley took more heat than the five guys lining up in the trenches on every snap.
“We haven’t forgotten what the 5-7 record was,” said rising fifth-year senior Dallas Thomas, the group’s elder statesman. “That was a lot on us.”
“No run game,” added rising junior tackle Ja’Wuan James. “This and that and the offensive line.”
As it does seemingly every year around this time, though, hope is renewed in spring practice. It’s a new season, and UT’s offensive line has a new position coach in Sam Pittman. Though the Vols are embracing the clean slate in front of them this spring, they’ve not forgotten last season.
“It’s definitely a motivator,” said center Alex Bullard. “We didn’t run the ball the way we needed to last year. We know we have to do better, but at the same time we’re not going to dwell on not being able to run the ball last year.
“We’re looking forward and saying we are going to run the ball this year. In the back of our mind, we know that we have to do better than we did last year.”
It won’t be hard for the Vols to improve. Only four teams nationally averaged fewer yards per game than UT’s 90, which was more than 30 yards less than next-to-last Kentucky in the SEC. It was a big disappointment for a group that entered the season loaded with promise.
A four-star prospect out of Nashville, Richardson had hopes of his own for his freshman season. He stepped on campus as one of UT’s strongest offensive linemen, but a shoulder injury sapped the valuable time in August camp when “Tiny” could have pushed hard for a starting spot. Though he played in every game, Richardson’s lone contributions were on the protection units for field goals and extra points and a late-season role as a short-yardage fullback.
“It was a reality check because any freshman wants to come in and play,” he said. “I thought I was to come in and get a better opportunity than I did, but I didn’t. It humbled me a little more. I was able to sit in the background and learn from Dallas and Ja’Wuan, who’s been here and played for a couple of years.
“At first it was really frustrating, especially at the beginning of the year when I wasn’t playing that much. It was a humbling experience, and I really appreciate it because it gave me enough time to learn the whole system, learn how to play fast and just learn the speed of the collegiate level.”
Perhaps there’s not a better symbol for the offensive line’s fresh start. The 6-foot-6, 329-pound former Ensworth standout would be UT’s starting left tackle if the season began today, and his potential was enough for UT’s coaching staff to slide Thomas, who started all 27 games at the position the last two seasons, to left guard. Richardson is a well-spoken player with athleticism, and his potential is an exciting development for the Vols.
“At O-line, especially at the left tackle position, it’s a learning experience,” he said. It’s not a position where you can hop in there and just say, ‘Go.’
“Of course I do [want to start]. I’ve thought of that ever since of stepped foot on this campus. I’m just going to work hard, do what the coaches tell me and play fast. That’s all I can do. I can only control what I can control.”
It’s clear the group has taken a liking to Pittman, a former North Carolina assistant.
“He’s a great coach, a great guy,” James said. “He’s going to get us to where we need to be.”
Bullard went as far as to call Pittman a “father figure.”
“We know he cares for us,” Bullard continued. “We know that he wants our best interests, and that’s always good when you know that your coach has your interests, because that makes you want to play even harder for him.”
Pittman has the track record of helping players reach the next level. He also was named one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters by ESPN. The off-the-field attitude and respected coaching pedigree are two things that stood out to Vols head coach Derek Dooley.
“Because [the players] know if they listen and do it as you say,” UT’s third-year coach said, “they are going to have success on and off the field.”
After struggling under Harry Hiestand, the Vols seem rejuvenated by the addition of Pittman, who came in after Hiestand took a job at Notre Dame.
“He brings a totally different vibe,” James said. “I feel like he relates to us more. He’s looking to help us on the field and off the field at the same time so we can perform better on the field. He’s trying to get the most potential out of us.
“I don’t want to say we needed a new coach, but it’s great since we have it. If it did change or if it didn’t, I feel like it’s a great opportunity now that we have Coach Pittman.”
Given the Vols’ heavy emphasis this spring on becoming tougher, playing more physically and adding an edge to their collective attitudes, they’ll have ample opportunity to erase a difficult last season. Until then, though, it’ll serve as motivation for the entire unit.
“We’re all totally committed to this run game,” Thomas said. “We really want to get this run game going, and that’s one thing on our mind a lot this season.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...