KNOXVILLE — Antonio "Tiny" Richardson saw no need to let the question linger.
Tennessee's left tackle made the decision most in the program long expected, and the Volunteers announced Friday evening the junior will forgo his final college season and enter the NFL draft.
A potential first-round pick, Richardson was a two-year starter for the Vols.
"After praying and talking it over with my family and coaches, I believe that now is the right time to make a statement about my future," Richardson said in Tennessee's release. "I have truly loved every moment of being a Tennessee Volunteer and will always be a Vol for Life.
"As much as I have enjoyed my time at Tennessee, I have long dreamed of playing in the NFL and taking care of my family. After careful consideration, I have decided to forgo my senior year and enter the 2014 NFL draft."
Tennessee must replace its entire offensive line next season. The four senior starters -- left guard Alex Bullard, center James Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ja'Wuan James -- and Richardson combined to start a whopping 177 games in their respective careers.
A former four-star recruit, Richardson signed with Tennessee in 2011 while Derek Dooley was still the coach, and he was used on the field-goal-protection unit and as a reserve lineman as a freshman after preseason shoulder surgery stunted his development.
Heading into his sophomore season, Tennessee moved Dallas Thomas, a third-round NFL pick last year, from left tackle to left guard to accommodate for Richardson's talent.
"I am grateful to all of my Tennessee coaches and everyone in the football program who made my life easier, from trainers to tutors to our fans, who are the best in the country," Richardson said. "I am ready for the next level and look forward to what I know will be an exciting challenge."
In 2012, Tennessee's offensive line allowed just eight sacks in more than 450 passes, and the Vols ran for 2,261 yards -- the second-highest output for a season since 1999 -- despite a very wobbly passing game this season.
"We appreciate Antonio's efforts and contributions to University of Tennessee football," Vols coach Butch Jones said in the release. "He will always be a Vol for Life and we wish him all the best as he looks to further his career in the National Football League."
Richardson, who missed spring practice after knee surgery, had a solid season in 2013. He was beaten for two of the 15 sacks Tennessee allowed by Georgia's Ray Drew and Auburn freshman Carl Lawson and controlled South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney as his rematch against the likely No. 1 overall pick progressed.
Five of the first 19 picks in the 2013 NFL draft were offensive tackles, and Richardson figures to be among the group just below Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, who is a junior.
"Antonio Richardson's had a good year, not necessarily great," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper said last month. "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."
Tennessee is set to add four offensive linemen committed in its 2014 class, and junior college tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolls next month, could slide into Richardson's spot and start immediately.
The Vols could get a boost defensively if linebacker A.J. Johnson, their leading tackler the past two seasons, elects to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
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 ...