College football fans without an affiliation to Tennessee or Florida may have a hard time getting excited for the Vols visiting Gainesville this weekend. And who could blame them. The Gators have won the last eight meetings between these schools, and it hasn’t been all that close, as the Gators have won by at least 10 points in each of the last five games. The last time the Volunteers won -- at home in 2004 -- they needed a 50-yard field goal with six seconds left. To put that in perspective, Phillip Fulmer would coach Tennessee for another four seasons.
It’s not as if Florida comes into this game the powerhouse it was in the past either. Saturday marks just the second time that one of the teams isn't undefeated heading into the game since they started playing each other every year in 1990.
One aspect of this game hasn’t changed though: There’s still plenty of NFL talent in the trenches.
Take a look at the table to see the number of offensive and defensive linemen in the NFL who have played for one of these schools.
The schools have a combined three defensive ends in the Hall of Fame; Reggie White and Doug Atkins played their college ball at Tennessee while Jack Youngblood played at Florida.
In terms of this week’s matchup, three linemen could go in the first or second round and no fewer than nine are on our radar. Here’s an in-depth look at the top three:
Tennessee left tackle Antonio Richardson (Scouts Inc. preseason grade - 91)
The only underclassman starter on Tennessee’s offensive line, Richardson is the third-highest-rated offensive lineman on our board. A dominant run-blocker, he has the lower body strength to drive defenders off the ball and the size to wear them down over the course of a game. In terms of pass protection, his wide frame and long arms force speed rushers to take a wider angle and he flashes the ability to knock them off balance with a strong punch. He is more than big enough to anchor against power and recovers well when he gives ground initially. There are two areas he can improve on based on his 2012 tape and his performance against Oregon last week: his hand placement is inconsistent, and he takes too long to redirect when defenders shoot inside.
Tennessee should have success running behind Richardson regardless of who lines up opposite him. Holding up in pass protection will be a greater challenge, and the key to success is sound footwork from snap to whistle. Florida's Dante Fowler and Ronald Powell are above average athletes with the kind of lateral quickness that can give Richardson problems. Richardson can’t short set in an effort to take away the inside either. As long and wide as he is, Richardson still needs to respect their explosiveness and protect the edge with an effective kick step. It will be interesting to see how Richardson handles the Gators’ pressure packages. He shows good awareness for the most part but appears to suffer from the occasional breakdown picking up blitzes.
Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (Grade - 85)
Listed at 6-foot-8 and 351 pounds, McCullers is a massive run stuffer whose ability to handle blockers one-on-one forces teams to double him or pay the price when they run inside. He’s not just a space eater either. He uses his exceptional arm length to keep blockers off his frame and locates the ball quickly. While there’s room for continued improvement, he flashes the ability to get off blocks in time to make the play. As you might expect, he is not an explosive interior pass-rusher and projects as a two-down player at the next level. That said, he can push the pocket and get his hands up in passing lanes.
McCullers got off to a strong start against Florida last year. He looked dominant one-on-one and held his ground against double-teams. Then he started to wear down at the end of the first half despite a steady defensive line rotation. He’s not nearly as effective when he’s tired, but he’s big enough to get away playing high when he gets fatigued. The bigger problem is his feet and hands slow down. So even though the Gators weren’t moving him off the ball, they had more success neutralizing him with one blocker as the game progressed. McCullers can help himself by consistently playing at a high level this time around.
Florida DT/DE Dominique Easley (Grade - 80)
Easley is versatile enough to line up on the outside, like he primarily did against the Volunteers last year, or the inside, where he lined up against Miami two weeks ago. He has deficiencies at both positions. He doesn’t show great closing speed coming off the edge and can get driven off the ball when he lines up on the inside.
He does things well at each position. He’s a squat defensive end whose low center of gravity makes it tough to get under him so he can set the edge against bigger offensive tackles. He can disrupt running plays and move quarterbacks off the spot when he lines up on the inside. In terms of how he projects at the next level, Easley fits best at defensive tackle in a four-man front. He would also fit well at defensive end in a three-man font. His motor and toughness are impressive regardless of where he lines up.
The aforementioned talent Florida has on the edge means Easley will most likely do most of his work on the inside this time around. Keep an eye on Tennessee’s ability to alter the cadence in the Swamp and cover him up on zone runs. If the noise level makes it tough for QB Justin Worley to change the snap count, Easley could wreak havoc. He does a great job of anticipating the snap. As experienced as it is, the Volunteers’ offensive line didn’t work as a cohesive unit on zone runs against Oregon, especially on the right side. Easley can take advantage and split the blocking scheme if Tennessee doesn’t clean up its technique and spacing.
Now, let's take a quick look at the other linemen on our radar.
Center James Stone
Stone is on the lighter side, and it shows up at times. He can give too much ground in pass protection, and he’s not an overpowering run-blocker. However, he has adequate bulk and enough room on his frame to get bigger plus he has good length for the position. He’s a technician who gets into position and finds a way to get the job done more times than not.
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James
James is a four-year SEC starter with prototypical length, foot speed and bulk for a right tackle prospect. Yet he hasn’t realized his considerable potential. He can get caught oversetting to the outside and get beat inside in pass pro like he did against Oregon last week. He can also play with better pad level and improve his ability to sustain as a run-blocker.
Right guard Zach Fulton
On the downside, Fulton doesn’t have great length or foot speed, so quicker defensive tackles like Easley can give him problems. On the upside, he is a strong drive blocker with above average size, he masks his athletic limitations with good body control working up to the second level, and he can hold his ground in pass protection.
Left guard Alex Bullard
Bullard can line up anywhere along the offensive line and has plenty of experience playing tight end. In fact, Tennessee lined him up at tight end at times against the Ducks. His ability to play there is a testament to his athletic ability, and he would be a good fit for a zone-heavy scheme. His greatest weakness is that he doesn’t have great size or power, and he plays too high at times.
Center Jonotthan Harrison
Harrison is a versatile interior offensive lineman who can line up at center or guard and has the measurables to play either position at the next level. He can get stronger at the point and play with better pad level, but there’s a lot to like about his aggressiveness and tenacity as a run-blocker. In terms of pass protection, he has the quickness and foot speed to stay in front of the defender. One area he can improve on is sinking his hips. He tends to lean and falls off some blocks because of it.
Right guard Jon Halapio
Halapio is expected to return to the lineup after missing most of fall camp and the first two games with a torn pectoral muscle. The four-year starter received a medical redshirt after playing in three games in 2009, so there are durability concerns. In addition to his injury history, he shows average initial quickness and agility on tape. He is, however, a grinder who can finish as a run-blocker and fights to stay in front of defenders in pass protection.
This weekend's scouting trip
I am headed to Connecticut to see Michigan take on the Huskies, and it should come as no surprise that I’m excited to see projected first-round pick LT Taylor Lewan in person. I’m even more interested to see how well QB Devin Gardner plays this week. Gardner impressed me with his poise and confidence in the Notre Dame game, but he hasn’t played nearly as well against the other two teams he’s faced this year. He faces a Connecticut pass defense that’s struggling to recover after losing its top two pass-rushers and both starting corners to the draft, so the table is set for Gardner to have a strong day.