Potential key to Vols' offense? Finding Eric Gray's ceiling
It’s hard not to reminisce about the history of great tailbacks that Tennessee once had when you look at its current roster. Could this be a bit of a renaissance? Perhaps, but let’s not go too far just yet.
No, I’m not saying that Ty Chandler and Eric Gray are going to make anyone forget about Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb. However, there is a sense that UT could have a special duo that they haven’t had in decades. Having that type of running back depth is pretty much mandatory in football today. One tailback simply can’t handle the entire load with the tempo that offenses run and the beating that tailbacks take. The game has just gotten much bigger and stronger since the good ole days of giving a running back 35 carries.
So does UT have that combo in Chandler and Gray? Are they explosive enough to keep defenses honest in the running game? There is reason to believe so. At least that’s the plan.
“You’re going to see Ty and Eric out there all the time,” UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said recently. “If they’re off the field, I’ve either had a heart attack or something’s happened.”
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Of the two, Chandler is more proven. He’s a senior and was Tennessee’s leading rusher last season. Yet there seems to be something special about Gray, especially now that the sophomore has had a year to develop physically. Tennessee’s coaches aren’t downplaying Gray whatsoever.
UT running back coach Jay Graham had glowing things to say about Gray’s potential in a virtual press conference.
“We’re trying to find that ceiling,” the former UT running back great said. “I’ve told him every single day, ‘Go to practice, work hard,’ and he’s done that. He’s a very smart young man, because that’s the first thing. If you’re going to be able to do all these different things, you’ve got to have the intelligence to understand it, the recall to know what’s going on. He’s a very intelligent young man, so it’s always been good.”
Gray was a huge – and somewhat surprising – recruiting pickup when he signed with the Vols. He had plenty of options, including Alabama, Michigan and Penn State. He has drawn comparisons to Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt by 247Sports scout Barton Simmons, who said Gray could be a 2nd- or 3rd-round pick in the NFL Draft. Chris Landry of landryfootball.com has also been impressed by Gray.
“Good strength for an all-purpose back,” Landry said. “Just adequate long speed, but excellent burst and short-area quickness. Very good instincts with the football. Has make-miss ability. Effective pass-catcher out of the backfield. While he can run with strength to run through arm tackles, he is not a regular finisher of runs, doesn’t showcase power. Doesn’t have the body of an every-down back yet but may still develop into that with the right strength and weight gain.”
If Gray is utilized correctly and has success, it would certainly help the Vols when recruiting Memphis, which has always been a challenge. A playmaker like Gray would garner some strong attention from the prospects in the westernmost portion of the state. There’s talent in that area, but there’s also plenty of competition and very little loyalty among prospects and high school coaches.
Gray could help change that. That’s long-term.
Short-term, one thing is for sure: Gray will be showcased. That wasn’t the case the last time UT had a pair of talented tailbacks in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The latter was incredibly underutilized. Now, he’s one of the biggest stars in the NFL.
There doesn’t seem to be any sign that Tennessee’s coaching staff will make that mistake with Gray and Chandler. As long as that doesn’t happen, UT could have two of its most memorable tailbacks in decades.