published Saturday, October 27th, 2012

Vols' 'Tiny' tackle has huge job today


Georgia defensive end Abry Jones locks up with Tennessee offensive lineman Antonio Richardson during the Bulldogs game against Tennessee at Samford Stadium in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 51-44.
Georgia defensive end Abry Jones locks up with Tennessee offensive lineman Antonio Richardson during the Bulldogs game against Tennessee at Samford Stadium in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 51-44.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) at No. 17 South Carolina (6-2, 4-2)

Noon * Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia * ESPN/106.5 FM

The matchup

Steve Spurrier always has had success scheming against Tennessee, and the South Carolina coach must be licking his chops facing first-year Tennessee coordinator Sal Sunseri's struggling bunch. The Vols are last in the SEC and 95th nationally in yards allowed. The Gamecocks have struggled offensively themselves, and 211- and 191-yard outings against LSU and Florida's stout defenses have dropped them to 95th nationally in total offense.

Spurrier said he hopes to get Marcus Lattimore more involved, and after getting just three carries due to injury against Florida last week, the star tailback should be rested and ready to attempt to duplicate his 184-yard performance from the teams' last meeting in Columbia.

"We just haven't performed very well," Spurrier said. "We hope to perform better. We know we can't run [Lattimore] every play, but we know how our wins have occurred in the past and we're going to try to get back there.

"They desperately need a win just like we desperately need a win."

One to watch

Though he was yanked from the blowout loss to Florida, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw remains the type of dual-threat quarterback that always seems to give Tennessee fits. He only threw for 87 yards in the Gamecocks' 14-3 win in Knoxville last season, but he ran for 64 yards. The Vols can expect a lot of zone-read option plays with Shaw and Lattimore, and his speed could present problems for Tennessee's defense whether he's scrambling or dashing downfield on a designed run.

"He's made a lot of explosive [plays] scrambling," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "You can tell they work a lot on when he breaks the pocket, they take off. It's like a new play.

"It's like they get to run two plays. You cover them pretty good, and then scrambles, and then there's a whole new play that you've got to go play. The best way to avoid that is keeping him in the pocket."

In the end

Tennessee is reeling from three straight losses, while South Carolina just lost to two of the most physical teams in the SEC. It's a rare case where there's questions about which team will show up in both camps. Clearly the Vols are dealing with most external distractions with all the chatter about Dooley's focus, and though the Vols have insisted they've kept their heads up amid the losing, how focused will they be come kickoff?

"We're a much different team from last year," said defensive lineman Maurice Couch. "Around this time last year, everybody's head was kind of down, and they were going into the game and really thinking we had no chance of winning. But this team this year, we're going to give it all we've got, and a lot of guys are keeping their composure."

Tennessee might need more than composure with its porous defense and recent struggles of offensive stars quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter against their old coaching nemesis.

Prediction

South Carolina 35, Tennessee 17

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As a first-year starter, Antonio "Tiny" Richardson has learned to appreciate the week-by-week process of playing left tackle in the unforgiving Southeastern Conference.

The Tennessee sophomore was sincere in denying any premature anticipation of the final Saturday in October, but he's seen the schedule and watched other SEC games and highlights on ESPN.

He knows about No. 7 for 17th-ranked South Carolina.

"The best defensive end in the country by far. Probably the best defensive player in the nation arguably," Richardson said of Jadeveon Clowney.

"It's going to be a good challenge for us. It's going to be a clash-of-the-titans type deal."

It's certainly strength on strength, the SEC leaders in sacks battling the SEC leaders in sacks allowed. The two spotlights will shine on Richardson and Clowney on one end of the trenches and Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James against South Carolina's 6-foot-8 Devin Taylor. The players between them on both sides aren't bad, either.

While Clowney and Taylor have combined for 13.5 sacks this season, the Vols have allowed just three in 256 pass attempts, good for the second-fewest in the country.

"I think any time that you have the number of sacks that we have, the No. 1 thing you have to be pretty good at is tackle," Tennessee offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "You have to be good at quarterback and receiver to get open and all those things, but you have to be good at tackle. We're OK there protecting at the tackle spot."

Using Pittman's logic, the menacing 6-6, 256-pound Clowney is also just OK. The nation's top-rated player coming out of high school in 2011 has lived up to the hype and been a dominant force for his home-state Gamecocks. The impact of the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft goes beyond sacks.

"The thing he's got is he's got an unbelievable burst off the ball," Pittman said. "He's going to be a little bit better at home even, because of the noise, and we've got to really relay down and get everything correct with our snaps and all those things. If you can beat him to the spot, it's the only chance you have."

Clowney and his line mates are so disruptive that Jim Chaney acknowledged he'd have to tailor his game plan to limiting their impact, but Tennessee's offensive coordinator compared Clowney to NBA legend Michael Jordan.

"If we put three or four over there, it'd look kind of strange formationally," Chaney joked. "We're going to do things to try to change things up like everybody does on a great pass-rusher. You try to change the rhythm on him.

"He's going to make his plays. What you've got to do is just try to minimize him. It's kind of like Jordan: When he used to score 30, you're probably pretty happy, and as long as it wasn't 60, you're OK."

South Carolina registered six sacks against Tennessee in Columbia two years ago, when the Vols started three true freshmen, including James. The group has come a long way since then, and even a disappointing performance by their standards against top-ranked Alabama did little to diminish the confidence of the Vols' offensive line.

"Any good anything is someone that has a lot of confidence, and any bad anything is someone that doesn't," Pittman said. "I think part of your job as a coach is try to instill confidence, and yeah, I'd like to have some of that in your room. They can't get beat down every week and continue to come back and act confident.

"But we're a confident group. I don't mind saying that."

At 6-6 and 332 pounds, Richardson is as confident as any of Tennessee's offensive linemen after neutralizing Georgia's Jarvis Jones and holding his own against Florida's underrated edge rusher Lerentee McCray. He's proven the Vols made a good decision by inserting him into their starting five.

"Tiny wouldn't be on the bench for any team in America, and I don't think it's good for him to be on our bench," Pittman said. "We also knew that we thought Dallas Thomas would be a great [left] guard for us. Even the NFL scouts say that was the greatest move that he's made for himself in his career, but everything was concerning the team."

Richardson's team will need him to be big this afternoon.

"I feel like," he said, "I can play with anybody."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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