KNOXVILLE – South Carolina, ranked No. 9 in the nation coming into this week’s matchup at Tennessee, boasts several quality players.
Running back Mike Davis leads the SEC in rushing with 742 yards. Quarterback Connor Shaw has been among the best in the nation at protecting the ball this year with 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
But they’re all overshadowed by one: Junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Known around the nation as perhaps the most dangerous player in college football, Clowney’s hits on hapless quarterbacks and running backs have become legendary around the country. Tennessee knows about him all-too-well.
After being held in check in last year’s contest, the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder, who is a likely top-5 pick in next year’s NFL draft, finally beat UT left tackle Tiny Richardson, sacked quarterback Tyler Bray and forced a fumble that ultimately cost the Vols a chance to pull off the upset at South Carolina.
It’s a play that’s been etched in Tennessee players’ minds since that game. That’s especially true for the offensive line.
"[Tiny] wants to go out and perform each and every week to the best of his ability," said Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley. "Going up against the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick, you always amp up the stage for him, any tackle that is going to face him. I know Tiny is ready to play and if [right tackle] Ja'Wuan [James] has to block him as well, he is ready to play as well."
Clowney might move around in some situations, but the responsibility to block him will most likely fall on Richardson’s broad shoulders throughout most of the contest. Richardson wasn’t made available for comment this week, but his teammates and coach tried to downplay the matchup.
"Everyone wants to make a big deal about Tiny and Jadeveon, but they do a great job he will be lined up over by Ja'Wuan James as much as Tiny," said coach Butch Jones. "It is our entire offensive front, it is not just Jadeveon Clowney. He is a great player but they have great players around him."
"He's his regular self now and taking it like any other game," added guard Zach Fulton. "But I know inside he's excited to play."
It’s a matchup that transcends the 60 minutes of game time this Saturday. It dates back to last year’s game. It also could have plenty of future implications as well. Clowney has already cemented himself as one of the best draft-eligible players in the nation for 2014.
Richardson is trying to do that same. NFL scouts took notice of his performance against Clowney last year and all eyes will be on that battle again this year. It's more than an ordinary week for both.
Curt Maggitt update: The injury status of linebacker Curt Maggitt has been somewhat of a mystery all season. The junior tore his ACL late in 2012, but was expected back for the beginning of the 2013 season.
He’s been a full participant in practice most weeks, however he hasn’t appeared in any games this season. It looks like that trend might continue.
"Right now I don't anticipate him playing,” Jones said. “I always think of the worst case scenario, we are not expecting him to play this year. If he doesn't he will redshirt and we will move on. If he is ready to go and based on where we are at in the season we will make the determination. Right now I am not expecting him to play."
• Out: TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman
• Limited: RB Marlin Lane, TE A.J. Branisel, WR Devrin Young, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles
• Tuesday was the first time Devrin Young has been on the field for an open practice since breaking his hand in early September. He was wearing a green, non-contact jersey but was fielding punts. Jones said they would pick their spots for Young this weekend.
• Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry was also back for an open practice for the first time since hurting his knee at Oregon. He wasn’t in a non-contact jersey and appeared to be moving around well.
• Maggitt continues to wear No. 7 in practice to simulate Clowney.
• With Vincent Dallas no longer on the team and Young’s return questionable, the starting kick returners on Tuesday were cornerbacks Jaron Toney and Malik Foreman.
• The team started practice with three 1-on-1 receiver vs. defensive backs plays near the goal line. Quarterback Josh Dobbs completed one of the three to receiver Johnathon Johnson, who was going against Riyahd Jones. Paul Harris dropped the first rep in the back corner of the end zone. Jones broke up a slant intended for Jason Croom on the second rep.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga