Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson hasn't been made available to the media this week, but you can bet there's a 6'6", 274-pound thought weighing heavily on his mind:
South Carolina's hyper-hyped defensive end has been widely scrutinized this year because of his limited production, and the questions surrounding him will only continue to pile up when Richardson gets the best of him Saturday.
UT's hulking offensive tackle is borderline obsessive about this rematch with Clowney, and when a 6'6", 327-pound man with first-round NFL talent is that motivated, betting against him would be foolish.
Saturday's game between Tennessee and South Carolina marks a battle a year in the making, and it will present Clowney with his biggest challenge before heading to the NFL in the form of Richardson.
In last season's 38-35 Gamecocks victory, Richardson—then a sophomore in his first season as a starter—essentially neutralized Clowney (three tackles, two quarterback hurries) until the game's decisive play.
That's when, with 1:14 left and the Vols driving inside USC's 20, Clowney beat Richardson inside, sacked Tyler Bray and forced a fumble that was recovered by South Carolina to preserve the win.
It was really the only time the nation's most lauded defender disrupted UT's offense all day, and Richardson drew national praise for the performance. Even so, the junior is still bitter about that game-costing whiff.
He noted at SEC Media Days that this year's game against Clowney has special meaning, according to Tennessee Sports Radio's Reed Carringer:
I have it on my calendar circled. I watch, I swear to you, I'm not just talking right now, I watch that whole film once a week, 'cause I'm trying to break him down, every single movement that he does, I'm trying to break him down 100%.
That's pretty much the definition of obsession.
Clowney has dealt with a strained muscle near his ribcage this season and has been a non-factor in many high-profile games. For the year, Clowney has just two sacks after registering 13 last year and has not put up the numbers many NFL scouts predicted when he was anointed the surefire top pick in next year's draft.
Tennessee's offensive line, similarly, was criticized earlier this season but has elevated its play recently. As well as Richardson has played this season, he struggled at times against Georgia's Ray Drew.
But there wasn't the same history with Drew as there is with Clowney, and that will be a factor.
Clowney chirped at SEC Media Days, saying of Richardson, "he is the best at holding and getting away with it," according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press's Patrick Brown. That doubtlessly added fuel to Richardson's fire.
To his credit, Richardson got a jab in as well, saying Clowney was "overrated" on the EA Sports NCAA 14 video game.
Though Richardson didn't say anything to the media this week, he did respond via Twitter to a South Carolina fan's profanity-laced YouTube video calling him out for being adept at holding, among other things.
With Clowney battling nagging injuries, carrying the albatross of national scrutiny and going against one of the most talented linemen in the country—one who knows that a lot of money is there to be made by improving last year's performance versus Clowney on a national stage—the money should be on Tiny.
The Vols game plan would benefit greatly if Richardson showed up with the game of his life and took Clowney out of the picture. While Clowney's production this season has dropped off significantly, it's partly because of the injury and the fact that opponents are double-teaming him at the line of scrimmage.
That has freed up other Carolina linemen like Kelcy Quarles (four sacks) to do damage to offenses. If UT can get away with neutralizing Clowney with Richardson, the Vols can run their normal offense without essentially subtracting a player like a tight end or running back being kept in to help with Clowney.
UT coaches have remained mum on whether there have been any additional discussions on helping neutralize Clowney and insist this week is business is usual. Because of Richardson's presence and prowess, that may be true.
One thing is certain: Tiny's teammates know he's champing at the bit to get going, and they're excited, too. UT senior tailback Rajion Neal told GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
"There’s gonna be a whole lot of money made between them two guys on that end of the line of scrimmage," Neal said. "He should really just have fun. I’d be looking forward to the challenge and having fun.”
UT coach Butch Jones downplayed the Tiny-Clowney sideshow, saying USC will move Clowney around enough that he'll be matched up on opposite tackle Ja'Wuan James as much as Richardson. He also said "too much is made of that" in reference to the rematch.
But all eyes will be on the heavyweight bout in the trenches. With all the negative attention given to Clowney's junior season, he'll be prepared to prove he's still the megastar most touted him as being. There's a big orange wall of a man waiting on him, however, and Richardson will have waited 357 days for redemption.
Tiny's up to the tall task of taking Clowney out of the equation.
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