Vols’ Richardson benefits from NFL-caliber mentorship

HOOVER, Ala. — Antonio Richardson didn’t have to look far to help quench his thirst for knowledge on how to play left offensive tackle.

Oh, sure, he’s received college coaching the past two years as an emerging star at Tennessee. That will surely continue under new Volunteers coach Butch Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney.

But it was back home in Nashville, Tenn., where Richardson sought the advice of and eventually formed a mentorship with former Tennessee Titans left tackle Brad Hopkins, a former first-round draft pick, 13-year NFL veteran and two-time Pro Bowl selection.

“I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of pro players,” Richardson said on Wednesday during SEC Media Days. “But I call Brad Hopkins ‘B-Hop.’ He is like a big brother to me.”

Yes, the advice Hopkins relates to Richardson might be about footwork and technique and other tackle talk, but it evolved to more than that over time. It is Hopkins who relates a variety of life lessons to Richardson, including how to handle the growing fame that comes with arguably being the top left tackle in college football and a probable top-10 NFL Draft pick next spring, should he decide to leave school early after this upcoming junior season.

“He can be the best,” Hopkins said of Richardson, who is affectionately nicknamed “Tiny” because he is anything but at 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds. “First, he’s a student of the game. That’s first and foremost. Then, he is humble enough to learn.”

Then comes the kicker for Hopkins, who competed against some of the best in the business during his NFL playing days, which started in 1993 after being made the No. 13 overall draft pick by the then-Houston Oilers.

“I don’t even need to mention his physique,” Hopkins said. “He is 6-6 and 300-plus pounds and has the motor of a deer. That’s exactly what you want. You want somebody who is willing to learn and has tremendous athleticism. That’s Tiny Richardson.”

Indeed, you’ll find many a summer day when Richardson and Hopkins sit down to watch game film, but not only of Richardson’s play, but that of Hopkins and other successful professional left tackles as well.

Involved in that film study is watching Tennessee’s game last season against South Carolina and star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who many are touting as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Richardson held Clowney in check the entire game — that is, until a key play with 1:08 remaining. Clowney not only beat Richardson to hit the quarterback, but forced a fumble that thwarted a late Volunteers rally in a gut-wrenching 38-35 loss.

“I watch that film at least once a week,” said Richardson, who gets a rematch against Clowney and the visiting Gamecocks on Oct. 19. “I do a lot of film study and watching other tackles … But I also try to watch that game at least once a week because that’s my motivation.”

That is not lost on Jones, who inherited one of the top offensive lines in the country from former coach Derek Dooley. It not only features Richardson, but also three returning senior starters — right tackle Ja’Wuan James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone.

“We talk about the mindset of a champion, having that championship endurance,” Jones said. “One bad play can be the difference between winning and losing. So, we talk about all the time.”

And that includes the one bad play by Richardson against Clowney after a full game of successful ones.

“I think that’s added to just (Richardson’s) overall development as a football player,” Jones said. “But Tiny wants to be the best he can be.”

On Tuesday during South Carolina’s visit to SEC Media Days, Clowney had a back-handed compliment for Richardson.

“He is the best at holding and getting away with it,” Clowney said. “But he does a good job with it. If you don’t get called for it, it’s not a hold, so I respect it 100 percent.”

A day later, Richardson responded and confirmed that hand positioning and implementing certain techniques without being penalized is just knowing how to play the position.

“I think some of the best offensive linemen can hold and get away with it,” Richardson said. “(Pro Football Hall of Fame members) Jonathan Ogden, Anthony Munoz, all those guys could hold and get away with it. I’ll take it as a compliment. But sometimes you’ve got to stop crying and move on.”

Just maybe, Richardson picked up a pointer or two from Hopkins.

“What is unique about this situation is that he sought me,” Hopkins said. “It’s been great working him because I see his thirst to get better. I see where he wants to go.

“And if I can help him do that, it makes me feel good inside knowing I am part of it.”