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Decisions loom for Vols' A.J. Johnson, Antonio Richardson

Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and left tackle Antonio Richardson are two underclassmen who will soon decide whether to turn pro early, or return to college for one final season.

But based on the comments of Vols assistant coaches, Richardson might be more ready to make the move.

This from UT offensive line coach Don Mahoney, according to "I will provide whatever he will be willing to listen to. In a short period of time, we have gained mutual trust -- is probably the biggest word -- for each other and that type of thing."

Richardson is considered one of the top tackle prospects in the nation, potentially a first-round draft pick, with ideal size for the position (6-foot-6, 327 pounds) as the top performer on one of the SEC's top offensive lines. Richardson hasn't commented yet on his intentions. The NFL deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15.

UT defensive coordinator John Jancek, by contrast, sounded like a coach who believes Johnson could use another year of seasoning.

"No question, he does have a decision to make. I think that's pretty obvious," Jancek said last week. "It would be a tremendous impact to our program, and I think a great benefit to him personally, if he really takes a minute to step back and look at it."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a player who led the SEC in tackles as a sophomore in 2012 with 138, and followed that up with another 106 this season, ranking No. 2 in the league. Johnson at times struggles against faster running backs on sweeps and pitch plays that require lateral speed. Still, his productivity has been off the charts, and an NFL career awaits whether he leaves early or not.

It's a big decision for both players, and the impact on the Vols' program for next year will be big as well.

"Their leadership is really huge," Jancek added. "When you talk about them having the pulse of the team, those guys, when they say something, people are going to listen. That's going to be big."

Tennessee failed to qualify for a bowl game, so Richardson and Johnson could render their decisions sooner than most other underclassmen who still have one more game for which to prepare.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread

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