The NFL draft merely confirmed what many around the SEC already knew: Tennessee's offensive line wasn't nearly as good as advertised.
Only two members of the Vols' acclaimed fivesome were among the 256 draftees – Ja'Wuan James in the first round and Zach Fulton in the sixth. Tiny Richardson, James Stone and Alex Bullard waited with smartphone in hand for the call that never came.
So much for those that believed UT had an NFL-in-training offensive line for the last couple of seasons. A unit that never played up to its hype was exposed in the draft. Video tape doesn't lie, particularly when it's in the hands of NFL scouts who are ruthless in their evaluations.
There's a reason the Vols ranked 12th in the SEC in total offense last season. Yes, UT had a revolving door at quarterback and lacked a premier running back but the offensive line did not hold up its end of the bargain.
Certainly, it didn't help that UT had three different offensive line coaches over the last three years. That's a lot of transition at a position that depends so heavily on continuity. But the NFL draft is more about raw ability and individual performance. As a group, the Vols' offensive linemen didn't measure up.
Of course, this doesn't mean Richardson, Stone and Bullard can't make it in the NFL. Remember Jeff Saturday? He went undrafted in 1998 but was first-team All Pro twice. The league is populated by players that fell through the cracks for a variety of reasons.
Even so, those undrafted Vols have a smaller margin for error now. Teams are far more likely to give their draft picks extra chances to succeed. No general manager likes to admit he wasted a draft pick. Conversely, an undrafted player has to make a strong impression in training camp. One bad practice is enough to get you cut.
The snub of Richardson was particularly telling. He has been viewed as a can't-miss prospect since his high school days in Nashville. He seemed to be the prototype left tackle. His path to stardom – first in college and then the pros – seemed clear. Now, though, he'll have to make it via the back roads as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Vikings.
Nobody saw this coming. As a sophomore in 2012, Richardson had an exceptional game against Jadeveon Clowney, the top overall pick in this draft. Left to block Clowney one-on-one most of the game, Richardson handled him – except for one play. Clowney sacked Vols quarterback Tyler Bray and forced a fumble that killed UT's shot at a late comeback.
But Clowney returned the favor last season even though UT beat South Carolina. It was one of several games where Richardson struggled.
When he announced he would skip his senior season to enter the draft, many projected Richardson as a first-rounder and perhaps a top 15 pick. One pre-draft report said he "may possess the deepest and most impressive toolbox of all the tackles in the 2014 class in terms of natural ability and size/athleticism combination."
When reports surfaced about a possible micro-fracture in his knee and he had a lackluster workout at the NFL Combine, his draft status was downgraded a bit. Even so, it was stunning that he went undrafted even if it meant he might have to sit out a season while his knee healed. Remember, running back Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina was drafted by San Francisco in the fourth round last year even though it was clear he needed time to rehab a knee injury.
If you're a good enough prospect, some NFL team will draft you and wait.
Even without the knee condition, Richardson has other issues. His technique needs work. Some question his effort. His conditioning is an issue. He was painfully inconsistent last season. In short, he would have benefited from another year in college. Now it's too late.
When James, who played right tackle at UT, was drafted by the Dolphins with the No. 19 pick, Richardson tweeted: "Congrats to my dog/bookend. … Hoping to hear my name soon!" Two days later, with the draft winding down and his name still not called, Richardson tweeted that he "never saw this coming."
Welcome to the NFL. It's a blindside league.
David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 and on Twitter @DavidClimer.
DRAFTED VOLS LINEMEN
Ja'Wuan James, first round, Pick No. 19, Miami Dolphins
Zach Fulton, sixth round, Pick No. 193, Kansas City Chiefs
UNDRAFTED VOLS LINEMEN
Tiny Richardson, Minnesota Vikings
James Stone, Atlanta Falcons
Alex Bullard, Detroit Lions