Freshman running back Eric Gray has generated the most buzz of any football player on Tennessee’s roster this fall.
Gray started to impress back in the spring as an early enrollee, however. It started with 8 p.m. meetings going over protections despite not participating in spring practice due to injury. That strong work ethic has carried over to fall camp, and it’s what is impressing his coaches the most despite his on-field skill set drawing comparisons to Alvin Kamara.
“He wanted to make sure he was prepared when he got out there,” Tennessee running backs coach David Johnson said of Eric Gray on Thursday. “This guy comes to work every day.
“Obviously, you know he’s talented. But he’s a mature freshman, and he just wants to work. He just wants to see where he fits in this offense, and that’s the biggest thing. He’s a worker. He comes to work every day.”
Gray arrives in Knoxville following an impressive high school career at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee. At Lausanne, the Memphis native was a three-time Mr. Football award winner — winning the prestigious award in 2016, 2017, and 2018. He was the first to be named Tennessee’s Mr. Football three times.
In the words of Johnson, Lausanne did a really good job of preparing Gray for college, and that shines through every day through his work ethic. That effort has impressed the coaches more than even his ability has.
Gray helped serve as a middle school math tutor while in high school. He also helped raise money for Touchdowns Against Cancer, an initiate for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And he did all that while holding a 3.5 GPA.
“Every day he’s trying to get better, and he’s trying to do the things that he needs to do to help his team win,” Johnson said. “Even on special teams, he’s out there running, doing whatever he needs to do to help us win.”
“He comes in like a professional with meetings and everything. He’s been doing a good job in camp.”
During his high school career, Gray rushed for 138 touchdowns — a Tennessee high school state record. The former four-star — who at one point was committed to Michigan before the Vols really pushed for him — rushed for 2,499 yards and 40 touchdowns as a senior, leading Lausanne to the Division II-AA state semifinals. As a junior, he rushed for 3,151 yards and 45 touchdowns after rushing for 2,251 yards and 38 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Following his impressive career in Memphis, the true freshman is expected to play a big role for Tennessee this season even with some experienced backs already on the roster.
“He has to just continue to do the things that he needs to do,” Johnson said. “Not putting a lot of pressure on that kid.
“He’s still a freshman, so he can come in, wherever he fits in, doing the things he needs to do — whether it’s special teams, catching the ball out of the backfield, running in between the tackles — he’s just going to have to play his part. That’s what I tell those kids: Find your part to play in this offense.”
In terms of adjusting to the physicality of playing in the SEC, Johnson isn’t worried about it. Gray has the mindset and understanding to adjust to this level. It’s just going to take getting in the thick of things and adjusting on the fly.
“Until he actually gets out there into a real game and understands the physicality of this league, he’ll adjust to it,” Johnson said. “I just think he’s been doing a good job kind of displaying that in practice, so we have to continue to harp on those things and understand that this is a very physical game.”
Gray will get his first chance to play as a Vol on August 31st when UT hosts Georgia State for the season opener. But Gray won’t get his first taste of SEC football till later in September when the Vols travel to Gainesville to take on Florida.