PINEHURST, N.C. -- Tall and quick, big, strong and experienced, Barry Richardson could be the poster boy of every football coach's ideal left offensive tackle.
He plays the role of bodyguard, protecting a right-handed quarterback's blind side. And if a team can return only one starter on the offensive line, he is the one.
He is especially vital to Clemson's 2007 plans. The Tigers will be starting an inexperienced quarterback -- junior Cullen Harper with touted freshman Willy Korn waiting in the wings -- who will hold the team's fate in his hands.
No one has to tell Richardson of the quarterback's importance.
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"(The offense) starts with him; (the quarterback) is going to have to complete passes," he said Sunday at the AC football kickoff.
No one has to tell Richardson of his own importance, either. In addition to displaying the skills that make him a potential first-round NFL draft choice, he must overcome his soft-spoken style and provide leadership on a team short on seniors.
"Nobody want to repeat (last season's 1-4 finish)," Richardson said. "We want to go to a real bowl, a good bowl, one we can be proud of. (The Music City Bowl) was all right, but we know with one more win, we would have been in the ACC championship game and maybe the Orange Bowl."
Maybe more than anyone but the quarterbacks, Richardson is the guy who can make that happen -- or not.
Without his protection, they will not have a chance.
NFL can wait. Standing 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, Richardson looks toward his senior season with anticipation. He knows he could be preparing for the pros now, but a shot at the ACC championship and elevating his stock with NFL scouts brought him back to Clemson.
"I thought about (entering the draft) a little bit, but not as much as people believed I did," he said. "(Pro personnel) told me I could go in the second or third round, but there are no guarantees and I could have dropped."
By most standards, Richardson's junior season left few grounds for complaint. He earned all-ACC honors and his name appears on some preseason All-America teams. He has developed into the player Clemson coaches envisioned -- only he arrived far sooner than expected.
He graduated from Mount Pleasant's Wando High in three years and he started for Clemson in what should have been his final prep season.
"We knew we had a talented, athletic guy, and I told (other coaches) to keep me from going wild over Barry Richardson," Brad Scott, the Tigers' offensive line coach, said in recalling Richardson's freshman season. "We saw very quickly in practice that we had an extremely fluid big guy who could run."
He became a starter in the fifth game, played his best against touted opponents and Scott predicts a rosy future in the pros. That is for later, Richardson said. Getting rid of the 2006 hangover comes first.
Questions haunt Tigers in 2007. The Tigers open against Florida State, a made-for-national-television duel that could set the tone for Clemson's season. Win and gain momentum; lose and question marks will still dangle.
All eyes will be on the Tigers' quarterback, of course, and prognosticators wonder about a rebuilt offensive line. Do not fret about the latter, Richardson said.
"We will be more athletic (in the line) than last year," he said. "We don't have the same experience, but we have enough guys who have played. They just haven't started. ... I think we will be good.
"If (the quarterback) throws the ball well, we will be unstoppable on offense. The guys we have back there (running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller) ... I expect them to rush for 1,000 (yards) each if the passing game is there."
The Tigers discovered late last season that even the best offense cannot run successfully against teams that crowd the line of scrimmage with nine players. Expect the Tigers to counter with a vertical passing game designed to stretch defenses.
"If" the passing game is there ... "if" the Tigers find a balanced offense ... "if ... if ... if." That word will be the most familiar in Clemson's countdown to kickoff. In discussing the quarterbacks, do not overlook Richardson. Without the blind-side bodyguard, they will not have a chance.