SAN ANTONIO --- Here in the city that already bears his name, hulking four-star offensive lineman Antonio Richardson absolutely is soaking up every moment of an adventure he's been counting down to since spring.
But make no mistake: the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Richardson very much is on a mission to silence his doubters in his last-ever high school competition this week at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
"Because I missed two games at the end of the season and the jury, the people still questioned my legit-ness, I guess. Questioning if I was legit or not," said Richardson, who already has a qualifying ACT score and left Nashville's Ensworth School for Pearl-Cohn in November to tidy up some core academics. "I just feel like I have something to prove to people around the country. I don't have anything to prove to myself, just I have something to prove to the doubters.
"It motivates me a lot. Nobody ever expected me to be here two years ago. I've just been working really hard and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to even play."
A conscientious interview subject with a dominant streak on the field, Richardson is the state of Tennessee's top prospect and bouncing back from a shoulder injury re-aggravated earlier this week. He vowed it would take "an (torn) ACL, no two ACLs" to keep him from Saturday's game (1 p.m. ET, NBC) inside the AlamoDome.
His response this week in practice to the injury told East coach Lance Pogue what he needs to know about Richardson.
"I think his talent is unbelievable. It's outstanding. I think he's going to be fine for the game. He's just such a great athlete. I think it's unlimited what he can be. I think he's only scratched the surface," Pogue said. "I didn't think (the injury) was that bad. The first or second play, he just had a little sore shoulder. He came back in the afternoon in a T-shirt and did fine. I just think it's something that's a little sore.
"He's better, and I fully expect him to be full speed Saturday. Again, that shows the toughness of this guy to come back and want to continue to work. Nothing serious about it."
Not the injury, perhaps, but no denying the seriousness in Richardson's approach this week. Since informed he would be invited to the game, he's yearned for this opportunity. The doubts he sensed have spurned him through his work on the field, in the weightroom and in the classroom.
"I think the biggest reason I'm here today is because of the ability I've got. Some people, they think that I'm not legit. If I wasn't I guess I wouldn't be here. I guess my main reason for being here is because I play hard, I have good demeanor and good attitude," Richardson said. "I'm not going to lie. At one point (detractors) bothered me but then I had to pull myself together. 'All right, Antonio. Get it together.' At first it kind of was (bothersome) but everything's all good. I just focus on what I need to do and key on that and do what I got to do."
As for his ongoing recruitment, which almost certainly won't end until national signing day on Feb. 2, Richardson still mentions Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia the most. He continues to point to the strong bond both he and his father, Lanny, have formed with UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, as well as head coach Derek Dooley, as one of the key things he likes about the Vols.
"I have to say coach Chaney and coach Dooley," Richardson said of his strong relationship with those two UT coaches. "(Chaney) keeps it real with all the recruits. If you've got the chance to play, you're going to play. If you don't, then you're not. If you've got a chance to go to the NFL, he's going to tell you. If you don't, you don't. If you've got the chance to be a first-rounder, he'll tell you. If you've got the chance to be a sixth-round pick, he'll tell you that, too. He just keeps it 100-percent real with his players and that's what I like about him."
It's something Richardson believes sets Chaney apart from many others in the cut-throat recruiting world.
"I think that is unique," Richardson. "For a coach to tell you, just to keep it (straight-forward) with you and real."
Richardson, meanwhile, is focusing on the key factors for knowing he's finding the right school --- and while he notices early playing time for freshmen, like when he was at the Vols' Music City Bowl loss last week --- keeping perspective.
"And that's not just for them. That's at other schools," Richardson said of early playing time. "Auburn is losing four seniors. Georgia is losing some seniors. It comes to my head with a lot of guys. Like I said, that may not play a factor in my decision but it may. I'm just taking it a day at a time."
Similarly, Richardson isn't getting bogged down in the frenetic close to signing day.
"Not at all. Not at all," Richardson said of feeling any pressure. "I'm going to go wherever I'm happiest, sort of where my dad feels comfortable I guess. Most likely where I want to be because I've got to be there four years."
As for what Richardson thought of the ending to the Vols' 30-27, controversial setback in double-overtime last week against North Carolina in the bowl, he didn't mince his words.
"Yeah. They did. They did. They got robbed," he said. "It is what it is."
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