Tennessee should build around Eric Gray, and if it does, he could lead the SEC in carries in 2020
I’m about to do that thing where I make a “sky is the limit” prediction for a former blue-chip recruit who finished his freshman season with a bang. We’re all guilty of it. But I promise to give you more than “well look at what he did in the bowl game.”
Forgive me? Good.
I think that if common sense prevails, Jim Chaney needs to build Tennessee’s offense around Eric Gray. If he does, Gray could have a legitimate shot to lead the SEC in carries.
Before you scan the list of SEC backs who could hold that title by season’s end, I can present a clear argument for each of them as to what can hold them back from even repeating their 2019 workloads.
Kylin Hill had 242 carries last year, but now he’ll be in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, which averaged 50-plus pass attempts in 17 of his 18 seasons as a head coach. Najee Harris had 209 carries last year, but that was without 5-star true freshman Trey Sanders, who missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL. Rakeem Boyd had 184 carries last year, but it’s hard to imagine the SEC leader in carries will come from a team riding a 19-game conference losing streak with a first-year coach.
See, that title is totally up for grabs. Dare I say, it would make sense if Gray took it.
The recent news of tailback Tim Jordan’s dismissal from the team following an arrest certainly added to Gray’s case for more work. That’s someone who got over 100 carries last year and would’ve absolutely eaten into Gray’s potential workload. The only other back returning on Tennessee’s roster who had double-digit carries last year is Ty Chandler.
It’s Chandler who figures to still get consistent work as a senior. Nobody is saying he shouldn’t get consistent work, but he had 1 game of 100 rushing yards each of the last 3 seasons and he didn’t have a rushing score in SEC play in 2019. Chandler lacks Gray’s ability to make people miss at the second level and hit the home-run play, which Tennessee has been lacking far too much the last 3 years.
Chaney’s history as a play-caller suggests that he won’t necessarily declare anyone a “workhorse back.” We’ve seen him have great success with backfield duos like Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins at Arkansas, and of course he coached Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at Georgia. Including his time at Pitt and 2019 at Tennessee, 5 of Chaney’s last 7 offenses had at least 2 backs finish with at least 150 carries.
Four times, however, one of Chaney’s backs hit 200 carries. Can Gray be No. 5?
Looking at Tennessee’s perceived strengths and weaknesses, nobody would be surprised to see the Vols develop into a run-heavy offense. They’ve got the 3 factors you need to make that happen.
- An experienced, full-grown offensive line, especially if Cade Mays is eligible
- Major question marks in the passing game, especially at quarterback
- A defense who should prevent Tennessee from facing many multi-score deficits
The offensive line is the biggest thing there. A healthy Trey Smith back to anchor a line that features promising sophomores Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright is suddenly loaded with 5-star talent … especially if Mays is eligible.
Did I say 3 factors? I meant 4. Having a backfield capable of taking on such a heavy workload is vital, too.
Now is the part where I remind you of just how good Gray was down the stretch last year.
Yes, there was the bowl game in which he earned MVP honors for his 120 yards from scrimmage and a score. Perhaps more important in the “give him all the touches” argument was what Gray did against Vanderbilt. That 25-carry, 246-yard breakout performance served as the launching point. This 94-yard scamper accounted for 17% of his entire 2019 rushing production.
Eric Gray with the Kelsey Finch. Second-longest run in Tennessee history.
Vols freshman tailback had just 207 yards and zero TDs coming into today’s game.
Has 171 yards and two scores already in first half vs. Vandy. pic.twitter.com/y6EfPvFR5l
— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) November 30, 2019
It took awhile to get the Gray hype train rolling. This was someone who, as Vols fans knew, became the first ever 3-time winner of Tennessee’s Mr. Football award en route to breaking the state’s touchdown record.
So why wasn’t the Memphis native given more than 62 carries in the first 11 games of the season? A few reasons. He had shoulder surgery ahead of his first spring practice with the team. That’s not exactly the type of guy who figures to get 20 carries from the jump as a true freshman, especially when Callaway and Jordan were entering Year 3 with the program having both logged 115-plus carries in 2018. Callaway actually averaged 14 touches in his first 3 games, but then that number went down to an average of 4 touches in the next 8 games.
After the Vandy performance, Jeremy Pruitt shed some light on why Gray’s workout fell off.
“I thought Eric probably in the middle part of the season maybe lost a step,” Pruitt said. “It happens lots of times to freshmen. They get a little worn down playing against bigger men, just the day-to-day grind. But over the last probably couple of weeks, he kind of looked like his old self and had a little more pep in his step. It showed today.”
Now, perhaps, Gray is built better to handle the rigors of the SEC. Tennessee wanted him to add a little weight this offseason to get into that 200-pound range. It would make sense for someone who seems like a lock to see a significant uptick in volume.
It’s been 5 years since Tennessee had a back finish with 200 carries or hit 1,000 yards. Jalen Hurd did both of those things in 2015. Had it not been for a historic year of SEC running backs with Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette both taking the college football world by storm — and hitting the 300-carry mark — Hurd would’ve tied with Ralph Webb for the most SEC rushing attempts.
Who knows if Chaney plans on getting Gray near the 277 carries that Hurd had that season.
One thing I know? I won’t fault him if he does.