Vols' 'Pillars of Protection' stand tall

Lost in the fallout from Tennessee’s third straight losing season a year ago was an offensive line that jelled and had few peers when the season ended.

It’s an offensive line that pretty much returns intact in 2013 and will be flanked by a pair of tackles oozing with talent and poised to play for a long time in the NFL.

Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson are the Vols’ “Pillars of Protection,” and they form what is arguably the best returning tackle tandem in college football.

The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Richardson, who’s known as “Tiny” around Rocky Top, doesn’t think there’s much argument to it -- and he’s felt that way for a while.

“Even last year, I felt like we were the best tackle combo,” Richardson said. “I know Texas A&M had the hype (with Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews), but I really feel like me and Ja’Wuan can be two of the best tackles in the country. I just have that much confidence in us. And not just us, but I have a lot of confidence in my whole O-line as well.”

Senior Zach Fulton returns at one of the guard spots and senior James Stone at center. Both figure to be in NFL training camps next year. The only starter lost was guard Dallas Thomas. Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson are fighting for that spot this spring.

Richardson, who will be a junior, is a virtual lock to go in the first round of the NFL draft if he chooses to come out next year. James, a rising senior, looked into leaving early this year, but decided to stay. He might not be a lock to go in the first round, but it’s difficult to see him lasting past the second or third round.

“Last year, I thought all the work we put in showed,” said the 6-foot-6, 323-pound James. “We played a lot better, but there’s definitely another level. This year, we want to put it all together, because when you don’t win, it’s sort of hollow.

“That’s the legacy we want to leave, getting this program back to winning games.”

James has been a starter at right tackle since the day he walked onto campus. He’s started in 37 consecutive games. Richardson moved into the starting lineup last season at left tackle and more than held his own against some of the top pass-rushers in the league, namely Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.

As a unit, the Vols finished fifth nationally last season with only eight sacks allowed in 12 games. They also improved their rushing totals by an average of 70 yards per game.

But it was the one sack that Richardson gave up last season that has festered.

Tennessee was driving for the potential game-winning touchdown in the final minutes against South Carolina on the road. It was just the kind of win over a nationally ranked team that Tennessee desperately needed after losing their first four SEC games.

Clowney had been quiet all day. But with a little more than a minute to play, Clowney shot past Richardson on the outside and blasted Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray from behind, forcing a fumble that the Gamecocks recovered to seal their 38-35 win.

Richardson has rewound that one play over and over again in his mind, and every time he does, it only drives him harder.

“The thing is, Jadeveon Clowney is a great player, and I have the utmost respect for him,”Richardson said. “He’s the best defensive player in the country, maybe even the Heisman winner. But that last play has stayed in my head. It was everything I did, a technique flaw by me, and he took advantage.

“ESPN and all the media are going to magnify it. That’s all they see. They don’t see everything else that was done in that game. I’m just working on being 100 percent so I can show everybody that I am the elite left tackle in this conference.”

He has Clowney’s vote.

“He’s one of the best I’ve faced, him and (Michigan’s Taylor Lewan),” Clowney said. “What makes him so good is that he never quits and has an attitude about himself that he wants to be great. He came out the first play of the game and said, ‘I don’t want nobody but Clowney.’ I told him that I liked that about him.”

Richardson has been limited this spring after having his knee scoped during the offseason. He’s down to 325 pounds and wants to play a little lighter next season, especially with the Vols going to a faster-paced offense under first-year coach Butch Jones.

“We’re going to be moving pretty fast,” said Richardson, who only has 16 percent body fat. “The other thing for me is knowing what I’m seeing out there on the field on every play, being more of a student of the game. Not only for myself, but so I can help the younger guys out there.”

With a new quarterback and a new group of receivers, the burden next season will fall on Tennessee’s offensive line more than ever.

James, who’s playing for his third different offensive line coach at Tennessee, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everybody says we got questions at receiver and questions at quarterback,” James said. “As an offensive line, we put it on our shoulders to lead the team and help bring everybody else up. It always starts up front. That’s never going to change.

“If we play the way we’re capable of, there’s no telling how far we can go.”

Don Mahoney, who came with Jones from Cincinnati to coach Tennessee’s offensive line, loves the talent he inherited. But there are a few intangibles about this group that he loves just as much.

“Without a doubt, they’re blessed with some physical talent, but when they make a mistake, they know what that mistake was,” Mahoney said. “We’re blessed with guys who have talent and are smart, and they also have an edge to them. In their minds, they haven’t proven anything because they haven’t won enough.”

Richardson is careful not to get too ahead of himself, but he doesn’t need a calendar to know when he gets another shot at Clowney.

“It’s one game at a time,” Richardson said, his voice trailing off. “But believe me. When it’s time to go up against Jadeveon Clowney, I’ll be mentally and physically ready.”