|Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports|
|Tennessee OT Ja'Juan James is a member of what is considered one of the nation's top O-lines.|
HOOVER, Ala. -- Coming off back-to-back seven-loss seasons, Tennessee football isn't in the conversation about contenders in the Southeastern Conference's East division this season. But the Volunteers' offensive line has been hyped as one of the best in the college game, and in time, the players that make up the UT front will be topics for the NFL, as well.
Start with tackles Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja'Juan James, bookend pass protectors who would make even the stiffest of quarterbacks feel safe. Both are 6-foot-6, with Richardson weighing 327 and James listing at 318. Richardson, a junior, is considered one of the elite juniors at the college level, and will be a strong contender to be an early NFL draft entrant. Richardson addressed that possibility Wednesday.
"At the end of the day, if you don't perform, you're not going to get drafted as high as you want to," Richardson said. "So if you want to get drafted as high as you want to, you need to focus on teammates, school, what you have to do in order to get there. Then when the time comes, it comes."
James might have hinted at Richardson's future in referring to the group, which includes three senior starters.
"We've got to go out and work hard and prove it our last year," James said. "This is our last year of college football."
It's definitely the last year for James, center James Stone, and guard Zach Fulton, all seniors. Fulton (6-5, 323) is every bit as big as the tackles, while Stone is the shrimp of the group at 6-3, 291. The only position still open to competition is a guard spot between Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson, with Jackson (6-2, 307) said to have the edge entering fall camp.
James said the maturation process for the starting five has been a long and difficult path.
"We've talked about OLP -- O-Line Pride -- since we were freshmen," James said."It just shows how hard we've worked. In 2011, when I wasn't playing, they said we were one of the worst offensive lines in the country. Now they're saying 'Y'all are the best in the country.' We take it as, 'Praise and blame, it's all the same.' But we do see ourselves as the best offensive line in the country."
New UT coach Butch Jones paid the group the ultimate compliment in his remarks Wednesday.
"I'm more concerned about our depth at that position," Jones said. "I want to know by the end of camp who's going to be our No. 6 lineman, our No. 7 lineman."
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.