The uncertainty swirling around Knoxville is turning somewhat optimistic at the thought of Jon Gruden becoming the next head coach at Tennessee, and fans can’t wait to distance themselves and move on from the current state of the program with five games still left on the 2012 schedule.
But beyond the flickering hope of not going ‘O for October’, one coach who has really excelled for Tennessee has been running backs coach Jay Graham.
The former Tennessee running back from 1993 to 1996, Graham rushed for over 2,600 yards in his career, with his most prolific season coming in ‘95 when he rushed for 1,438 yards on 272 carries.
Last December, Dooley tabbed Graham as his next running backs coach from Steve Spurrier’s staff in Columbia. He took over a Tennessee running game that was the league’s worst rushing attack and the only team in the SEC averaging under 100 yards per game at 90.08.
This season Graham has revamped the rushing attack, which is ranked 8th in the SEC and runs the football for 168 yards per game without a dynamic running back on the roster. That’s production. Sure, some of it has to do with getting a year older on the offensive line and the use of Cordarralle Patterson, but there’s a notable difference in the running backs.
Rajion Neal is running tougher, albeit when he’s healthy. He showed flashes last season, but many did not think Neal was an everyday back and was quick to bounce it outside in search of a big play. But he’s running tougher between the tackles and plays with an edge, something this group did not have in ‘11. However, Tennessee was without their best back against Alabama because he sat out with an ankle injury suffered at Mississippi State. Neal is 11th in the SEC in rushing with 500 yards and five touchdowns.
The improvement from Neal, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young from the first week against NC State until now shows what good teaching from a proven running backs coach can do to the program. Tennessee had 11 rushing touchdowns in 2011, and the Vols have already surpassed that with 12 this season.
So, while many are hammering Dooley on his lack of success underachieving at 3-4, it could be worse if the running game did not kick it up a notch from last season. Graham is responsible for the improvement. He’s done a fantastic job.
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