KNOXVILLE – With Tennessee’s season over, a group of seniors – and a pair of juniors – can now turn their attention to the future.
And for several, that means a shot at the NFL. Junior offensive tackle Tiny Richardson has already declared his intentions, making it official last week that he will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft after three seasons in Knoxville.
“While the potential is exciting, Richardson has several question marks as he makes the jump to the next level,” said draft analyst Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSports.com in an inteview with Nooga.com. “But nonetheless, he has the qualities that cannot be taught and the Tennessee coaches speak highly of him and the way he carries himself on and off the field.
“If Richardson isn’t a first round pick in May, he shouldn’t last too much longer.”
Now the attention turns to linebacker A.J. Johnson, who has yet to officially announce his stay-or-go decision. He only commented that he hadn't decided on his future after Tennessee's final game against Kentucky this season. The junior tackling machine led the SEC in 2012 with 138 stops. He followed that up with a 106-tackle effort in 2013.
Few question his ability to make loads of tackles in the box, but his overall range and pass coverage skills are of concern when evaluating his potential at the next level.
“He is a violent tackler with strong hands, using aggressive angles and powerful finishing ability,” Brugler said. “Johnson is a high-effort player and his switch is always flipped on, reading and reacting fast with good speed in pursuit. He doesn’t have elite range and does most of his damage between the tackles, but he needs to improve his ability to shed blocks and stay clean in a crowd.
“I’d like to see Johnson return to Knoxville, but if he comes out, I’d expect him to be drafted in the 2nd-3rd round range, similar to [New England Patriots LB] Brandon Spikes.”
Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and offensive guard Zach Fulton highlight Tennessee’s potential draftees among the departing senior class. Brugler gave James a 2nd-3rd round projection, he sees McCullers being drafted somewhere in the 3rd round and Fulton going somewhere around the 5th round.
“McCullers is a tree trunk in the middle of the line of scrimmage with the natural size and power to be a double-team magnet and overwhelm blockers,” Brugler said of the 6-foot-8, 350 pounder. “He has improved his run awareness, but he simply lacks the range to do much about it if the play isn’t up the gut. McCullers is a two-down nose tackle who will be an attractive player due to his natural size.”
And while Richardson, James, McCullers, Fulton and Johnson (if he leaves) are pretty safe bets to be picked at some point in the seven-round draft in May, Brugler thinks a few other Vols have a chance to be selected as well.
“It’s amazing that a team not bowl-eligible has this many potential draftees, but Tennessee could easily have 6-10 draft picks,” he said.
Running back Rajion Neal, center James Stone, punter/kicker Michael Palardy, guard Alex Bullard, linebacker Dontavis Sapp and defensive end and Ooltewah native Jacques Smith are other prospects Brugler mentioned as players who could be targeted in the later rounds.
Neal, especially, stands out to Brugler as a player who might have vaulted himself into draft consideration with a strong senior season. The 5-11, 212-pound back wrapped up his senior campaign with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s not overly special, but he had the senior year that he needed to get noticed by scouts to possibly get drafted,” Brugler said. “Neal is a balanced athlete with deceiving power and determination, looking to finish on every run. He displays very good coordination in his cuts to keep his feet after contact with shifty moves in the open field to make defenders miss.”
“He does go east-west too much and his vision is a question mark, lacking the breakaway speed to simply run away from anyone on the football field. Is he a dime-a-dozen back? Maybe, but in a weak crop of senior running backs, it wouldn’t surprise me if he receives draftable grades from more than a few NFL teams with his athleticism, toughness and ability to catch the ball.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga
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