KNOXVILLE – Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has been sacked only four times in 2012.
It helps to have one of the the top left sides of any offensive line in the SEC, occupied by sophomore tackle Tiny Richardson and redshirt senior guard Dallas Thomas.
Anybody who knows football or has seen the movie or read the book "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis knows the importance of that for a right-handed quarterback like Bray.
Quarterbacks can see what is coming from the right side when they drop back to pass, but they must trust the left side to protect their back – the part of the pass rush they can’t see as well.
Richardson and Thomas have made it look easy this season. It hasn’t been. Thomas had to make the transition from tackle, where he had played the previous four seasons. Injuries have plagued Richardson. He dealt with a bad shoulder throughout 2011, and he’s now playing with a slight knee sprain he suffered against Alabama three weeks ago and re-aggravated on Saturday against Troy.
Despite their setbacks, Thomas and Richardson are being noticed for their NFL potential. Richardson played a nearly flawless game against South Carolina’s elite defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, two weeks ago while dealing with his knee injury. Clowney beat Richardson on his way to a crucial sack and strip of Bray that helped the Gamecocks seal the win, but that’s not what defined how well Richardson played that day.
“To watch how he competed the whole game, it just breaks your heart that the guy made an incredible play that last play and it happens to be the one that they are going to show on ESPN,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “I told Antonio that we would have never had 35 points on the board at all, we would have gotten blown out of the park, if it wasn't for him, and I believe that.”
That one play certainly hasn’t affected the growing amount of attention Richardson is getting on the NFL Draft front. He is ranked as the second-best offensive tackle for the 2015 NFL Draft by NFLDraftScout.com. He might not wait that long. He’ll be draft-eligible after next season, and he might go then.
Thomas won’t have to wait until 2014 or 2015 for his professional opportunity. He’ll be in the draft this season, and he could go in the first two rounds. ESPN.com currently lists him as the 24th overall player on its big boards. CBSSports.com has him 40th in its rankings. His experience at guard and tackle is part of what makes him valuable.
“I think it gives people another evaluation of him, but what helped him more than anything is how he worked at it and how he has performed,” Dooley said. “The move to guard wouldn’t have meant anything if Dallas didn’t have the level of commitment that he has showed to being good.”
McNeil learning on the fly: Freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil has been picked on at times by opposing defenses since he took over a starting role at Mississippi State on Nov. 13. But Dooley isn’t discouraged by any of the mistakes he’s seen from him yet.
“He has all the qualities to be a really good player and it is very difficult with the position we are putting him in,” Dooley said. "That is kind of what we did to Dan [Gray] last week. It is difficult, and it is a little bit like what we did with a lot of players in the last couple of years, which is hard.”
Added McNeil: “When I first came in I thought I would never get this. I was thinking that this defense is just too hard for me and I would never get it, but (the defensive coaches) improved my knowledge of the game. That is why I play like I do.”
Players get out and vote: With Tuesday being Election Day, the coaching staff put a large emphasis on the players getting out to vote.
Antone Davis, the team’s Vols for Life Coordinator, led the initiative.
“It’s just so important for them to show that responsibility in spite of the environment they’re in right now,” Davis said to UTSports.com in a video feature about the players voting. “We don’t tell them who to vote for, we just want them to vote. I think it’s so important.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.