KNOXVILLE – Tennessee junior offensive tackle Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft. The Vols announced Richardson’s decision on Friday evening via a press release.
"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 the 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 forego my senior year and enter the 2014 NFL Draft.”
Richardson is currently ranked as the fourth-best offensive tackle for the class of 2015 by NFLDraftScout.com. Various mock drafts project the former top recruit from the state of Tennessee to be selected in either the first or second round of the 2014 NFL draft.
A native of Nashville, Tenn., Richardson appeared in 36 games in three seasons with the Vols, starting the last 24 contests over the past two seasons at left tackle. He received first-team SEC preseason honors before the 2013 season in addition to being on the watch lists for the Outland and Lombardi Trophies.
With the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Richardson protecting the blind side, the Vols allowed less than a sack per game on average over the past two seasons. Though at times inconsistent, the offensive line he was part of over the past two years helped the Vols gain 2,261 rushing yards in 2013, the most since 2004, and led UT’s 2012 offense to an average of 475.9 yards per contest – good for 20th in the nation.
Richardson is perhaps best known nationally for his battles with star South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
"Richardson really opened eyes with an outstanding performance against South Carolina All-American pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney in 2012," CBSSports.com wrote in a scouting report. "While he wasn't as stellar in the rematch in 2013, Richardson has still shown the ability to hold his own against the SEC's top pass rushers while being a force in the ground game."
"We appreciate Antonio's efforts and contributions to the University of Tennessee football," added UT head coach Butch Jones. "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."
The Vols must now replace all five starters from the offensive line in 2014 – Richardson and seniors Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone and Alex Bullard. That group will leave behind 216 games of collegiate experience and 177 starts.
The Vols are scheduled to return just seven scholarship offensive linemen next season – Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson, Austin Sanders, Brett Kendrick, Marques Pair, Dylan Wiesman and Marcus Jackson. Jackson (5 starts) and Crowder (1 start) are the only returning players with starting experience.
Tennessee currently has four commitments on the offensive line: Ray Raulerson, Orlando Brown, Coleman Thomas and JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga