October 23, 2008

Dancing with the Vols

With Tennessee still clinging to a modest lead in the third quarter last Saturday against Mississippi State, the Vols' offensive huddle was transformed into a makeshift Bermuda grass dance floor.

Sure the dreadlocks, augmented by a 6-feet-4-inch, 300-pound frame, cast Tennessee junior Vladimir Richard as every bit the menacing, tough-guy offensive lineman his physical appearance implies.

But the Volunteers' starting left guard was bobbing his head, swaying his knees … and giving his teammates dance fever? Well, Josh McNeil, Tennessee's starting center and a guy more comfortable in a deer stand than American Bandstand, busted a move. Others followed.

"At first when I started doing it a lot, I was just doing it for myself, you know, feeling good," said Richard, who made his first career start last week and should get No. 2 Saturday against Alabama, of his dance routine. "Now it's just like my teammates are feeding off it. I had McNeil doing a little dance in the huddle, too. I don't know if you guys caught that. Jacques (McClendon) do a little something. It's good to see that I can bring that energy and have my teammates doing a little something too.

"I'm going to teach (quarterback) Nick (Stephens) a few moves. I feel that Nick has it … he's out there shaking a few people at quarterback. I feel that he can learn a few dance moves."

Who's going to tell Richard no? His lack of starting experience notwithstanding, Richard ranks among Tennessee's most respected locker room voices. Even if not each of the other 10 players in the huddle bobs his head to Richard's beat, he commands his peers' respect with his play.

"He's always dancing and upbeat. It rubs off on other guys and keeps the mood kind of loosened a little bit and not so serious," Stephens said. "It helps you play loose, really, and helps you realize it's a game out there. We're trying to win at the same time, and it is very serious, but he just loosens it up.

"He'll do all that stuff in the huddle and then go out and boom somebody. If you're going to act the way he does, you better play good like he does. And he goes out and backs up everything he does. He's got every reason in the world to be hopping around like that."

The admiration is evident in Stephens' voice. And Richard, who each week offers his thoughts on current events in UT's game notes package with Vol sports information director John Painter in a segment bearing the name "Vlad the Extoller," cringes at the thought of disappointing his teammates.

"All the energy is just me, that's the kind of person I am," Richard said. "I was never really doing it to have people notice the energy, and now that people kind of notice it and stuff, it's kind of I have to make sure that I'm bringing it every play. Coaches are looking for me to lead the team in a certain way, and players are looking for that energy.

"They don't really go out there and say, 'Vlad, we need you this play.' But I know when things are down, or just tired, we had a nine-play drive against Mississippi State, and it got a little tiring, I'm just looking at everybody like, 'Guys, let's go! Let's get this in the end zone.' I just know that's what I have to keep doing and just be myself, which that is being myself."

Despite just the one career start, coaches herald the South Florida native as arguably the Vols' most talented offensive lineman. Though he signed with UT three years ago as a defensive tackle, head coach Phillip Fulmer can't say enough good things about the offensive convert whose importance was magnified last week following Anthony Parker's ankle injury.

"Vlad's a really incredible person. He brought so much energy and excitement to that group, played the game like it's supposed to be played. I'm really pleased with how he responded to his first start," Fulmer said. "… All he needed was some consistency. I think he could be a great one.

"He doesn't have physical shortcomings at all. He had never played in the offensive line, had been a work in progress. But he's just now fully understanding how to finish and do things technique-wise. Physically, he's got all the tools in the world. I think he'll just take off from this point."

If Parker is unable to go this week from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in the first half against the Bulldogs, Richard and the remainder of the Vols' starting offensive linemen could be forced to play every offensive snap. Mind over matter, he says.

"When I'm on the field, I'm giving it all," said Richard, longtime best friends with fellow Miami-area Vol Gerald Williams. "There's times when you are tired, but I just take that deep breath and get that second wind and get out there and just try to help my team to make big plays. I feel in games like this (against Alabama), there is no room to get tired. You've got to be able to go out there and play the whole game."

And though he'll undoubtedly dance to his own beat Saturday against the Tide, Richard saves his top musical performances for his karaoke group, the "Highsteppers." It features Vol teammates Williams, Eric Berry, Savion Frazier, Daryl Vereen and "manager" Art Evans.

"The Volscars this year, I'm going to have the whole group set up a performance," Richard said of UT's athlete-based awards show. "Last year it was me and a few other guys, and I had a solo MC Hammer, 'Can't touch this.' I had my little vest, had my name on the back, the baby oil, the pants and everything. This year, I'm working on getting the 'Highsteppers' in there.

"'I've got Sunshine' right now is our No. 1 hit, but we have a few more songs. We haven't had rehearsal in about a week-and-a-half. We have to get on that, but we have tests and stuff like that so we make sure to handle schoolwork and then get on to karaoke."

If Richard and the "Highsteppers" have their way Saturday night, Neyland Stadium will be singing and dancing to their version of "Sweet Home Alabama."

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