In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
Boasting the skill-position talent to rival any team in college football a year ago, the Tennessee Volunteers appeared to be ready to make a run at the SEC championship. Instead, immaturity and selfishness made the 2012 season a nightmare in Knoxville (5-7, including 1-7 in the SEC East), leading to the dismissal of head coach Derek Dooley and premature leaps into the NFL by some of his most talented players, including quarterback Tyler Bray.
It will be fascinating to see if former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones is better able to translate his players' individual talent into wins. The roster he inherits certainly possesses a lot of future NFL players. As opposed to last year, this season NFL scouts will be focusing on the Vols' size, strength and athleticism along the line of scrimmage. The offensive line is particularly gifted.
In terms of pure talent, in fact, these Vols rank among the elite groups in all of college football. New quarterback Justin Worley may not possess Bray's arm talent but the junior could prove better able of handling his role as the leader of the team. If so, Jones' Vols are a legitimate candidate to shock college football with the most exciting season in Rocky Top since Phillip Fulmer guided the Vols to a 10-4 finish and perch at No. 12 overall back in 2007.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 14
2013 NFL Draft picks: Four - WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota Vikings, first round), WR Justin Hunter (Tennessee Titans, second round), OL Dallas Thomas (Miami Dolphins, third round), TE Mychal Rivera (Oakland Raiders, sixth round)
Top Tennessee prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. OT Antonio Richardson (6-6, 332, 5.16)*
Tennessee's spectacular collection of skill-position a year ago certainly deserves a great deal of credit for their explosive offense. Consider that despite facing SEC defenses each week, the Vols' averaged a gaudy 475.9 yards per game in 2012 - and this came via a pro-style offense that often asked its playmaking receivers to run deep routes and the relatively un-athletic Bray to scan the field. Too little of the credit for Tennessee's success, however, was given to their blockers - a unit that allowed just eight sacks all season long - including then-sophomore left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson.
Richardson signed with the Volunteers as the top overall prep prospect in Tennessee in 2010. He played in every game as a true freshman but didn't log a single start. As such, it surprised many when Dooley elected to move steady senior Dallas Thomas inside to left guard in 2012 to hand Richardson the critical role of protecting Bray's blindside. The gamble on Richardson's potential and Thomas' versatility paid off as each earned Second Team All-SEC honors.
Nicknamed "Tiny," Richardson is, of course, quite the opposite at a massive 6-6, 332 pounds. As physically imposing as they come, Richardson looks like the second coming of former Dallas Cowboys' star Erik Williams (6-6, 324). He's well-proportioned with broad shoulders, long arms and tree trunks for legs. Richardson shows surprising quickness and balance off the snap in pass protection, sliding quickly left to properly protect the blindside. He latches on with strong hands and rides with the pass rusher before settling, squaring his shoulders and sustaining nicely by playing on the balls of his feet.
Just a junior, Richardson hasn't yet generated the buzz of some of the other top offensive tackles throughout the country. Should he take his game to another level in 2013, however, "Tiny" may not be around long enough to generate hype at the collegiate level before the allure of the NFL pushes him to the pros.
Richardson may boast the highest upside of Tennessee's NFL prospects but the best player on the team at this point is arguably the veteran playing opposite him at right tackle.
James signed with the Vols as a highly regarded prep in 2010 and has done nothing but prove worthy of his hype since, starting all 37 games of his career at the strongside tackle position. His comfort at right tackle is obvious as he quickly recognizes stunts, showing surprisingly initial quickness, lateral agility and flexibility despite his monstrous frame. He is light on his feet and keeps his knees bent, playing with very good balance for a man of his size.
Like most blockers with his frame, James occasionally struggles with pad level. When he drops his head, he can be beaten with a swim move over the top. This occurs most often while run blocking. He is powerful and competitive, showing the grit to knock defenders off the ball at the line of scrimmage while keeping an eye on potential targets downfield.
Sporting a frame (and jersey number) that naturally has led to comparisons to former UT-great John Henderson (6-6, 335), McCullers led the Volunteers' defensive linemen with 39 tackles in 2012 despite it being his first season in Knoxville.
A successful tour at Georgia Military Academy made McCullers one of the country's mostly highly regarded JUCO prospects. He won the starting role at nose guard out of training camp but wound up starting just seven of 12 games for the Vols last season as he acclimated to big-time college football. As the year went on, McCullers made significant strides, collecting 34 of his tackles over the final eight games.
Despite his inexperience, McCullers' size and ability to disrupt things from the middle made him the focus of every opponents' blocking scheme. He was double-teamed on most snaps and saw triple-team blocks often. Despite the attention, McCullers' size and strength make him tough to move in the running game. He plays with better leverage than one might expect given his frame, holding up well inside and sliding off blockers to handle his two-gap responsibilities as a 3-4 nose guard. He was equally impressive against the run when Tennessee switched to a four-man front in 2012.
While McCullers' is tough against the run, he offers little in terms of a pass rush. He certainly has the strength to simply push opponents into the pocket but possesses below average foot-quickness and lateral agility. He recorded just one sack in 2012 and that number isn't likely to significantly improve in 2013. Scouts would like to see greater awareness in the passing game, however, as McCullers' long arms should allow him to tip more passes than he did in 2012 (one) as he gains experience.
Under Fulmer, the Volunteers were famous for turning highly regarded prep running backs into quality linebackers. Johnson's speed and physicality is such, however, that Dooley and his staff did the opposite, moving their star inside linebacker to the offensive side of the ball in key situations. Despite only logging 12 rushing attempts, Johnson led the Vols with six rushing touchdowns in 2012.
Johnson's red zone proficiency speaks to his versatility but the reason he'll be the highest selected linebacker from Tennessee since the New England Patriots made Jerod Mayo the 10th overall pick of the 2008 draft is his ability to stop opponents from scoring. Johnson emerged as a standout for the Vols almost immediately, logging 10 starts as a true freshman and finishing second on the team with 80 tackles, better than any other first-year SEC player in 2011. Starting all 12 games last year, Johnson led the SEC with 138 tackles (fourth-most in the NCAA) and led the team with 8.5 tackles for loss, as well.
Despite his impressive statistics, Johnson is very much a work in progress. He is quick to attack the line of scrimmage but struggles disengaging from blocks, dropping his head on contact and too often winding up on the turf.
The change to the 4-3 should protect him blockers and cater to Johnson's athleticism, potentially resulting in even more impressive statistics for the talented linebacker. A better athlete than football player at this stage of his career, Johnson must improve in the finer aspects of his position to earn the draft-day grade that his talent and production would seem to warrant.
5. OC James Stone (6-3, 302, 5.27)
Interior linemen rarely get the attention they deserve but Stone's quickness, versatility and ability to anchor could make him one of the country's top center prospects for the 2014 draft.
Stone enters his senior campaign with 24 starts under his belt (20 at center, four at left guard).
Well-built for play along the interior, Stone sports a stout frame with a thick lower-half. He shows good awareness in pass protection, sliding laterally to help teammates and reacting appropriately to surprise blitzes and stunts. His balance and surprising overall athleticism help him while blocking on the move, as well. One unique aspect that scouts will notice with Stone is that he switches hands when snapping. A natural left-hander, Stone fires the ball back out of shotgun southpaw but switches to his right hand when the quarterback is under center.
Other Tennessee prospects worth watching:
OG Zach Fulton (6-5, 324, 5.34)
Like Stone, Fulton doesn't get the hype of Tennessee's tackles but he's a legitimate draft candidate, as well. The Vols' starting right guard in 28 of their last 31 games, Fulton's size and power makes him an obvious candidate for drive blocking schemes. He can't be accurately described as quick but shows surprising balance when blocking at the second level, as well.
S Byron Moore (6-0, 195, 4.62)
Moore, a native of Carson, California, originally signed with USC out of high school, redshirting in 2009. He transferred to L.A. Harbor Community College a year later, where he starred (42 tackles, nine interceptions, including two returned for scores), developing into one of the more highly regarded JUCO prospects in the country. Moore twice started in the nickel for the Vols in 2011 (saw action in 11 games) and emerged as a full-time starter last year, splitting time between free and strong safety. His vision and ball-skills were once again impressive, as Moore intercepted a team-high five passes and finished second on the squad with 86 tackles. Scouts would like to see greater consistency from Moore as an open-field tackler.
RB Rajion Neal (5-11, 212, 4.53)
Neal emerged as an important part of the Vols' stable of running backs as a true freshman, logging 46 carries for 197 yards and catching seven passes for another 100 yards in 2010. His vision, tough running, and soft hands made him a jack-of-all-trades a year later as he saw time as a receiver, runner and even Wildcat quarterback. Neal was moved back to running back in 2012 and won the starting role, leading the team with 708 rushing yards and scoring nine touchdowns despite missing two games due to an ankle injury. Neal (whose first name is pronounced RAY-zohn), possesses the leg drive to generate yards after contact to go along with his athleticism and ball-skills. If he can hold off junior Marlin Lane, Neal could prove a force in the SEC in 2013. Neal is focusing strictly on football this season after running track for the Vols following his sophomore campaign.
OLB/DE Jacques Smith (6-2, 245, 4.76)
Smith began his career on the defensive line but made the switch to the JACK outside linebacker position a season ago as Tennessee switched to a 3-4 scheme. His experience up front could prove critical to his chances at success in 2013 as Smith broke his thumb in early August and may not be ready for Tennessee's opener August 31 against Austin Peay.