Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford also contributed to this article
Saturday night was supposed to be all about Tennessee’s seniors and sending them out with a bang in their final home game in Neyland Stadium. Instead, a true freshman stole the show.
Eric Gray came into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt with just 207 rushing yards on 62 carries in Tennessee’s first 11 games of the season. Gray had yet to run for a touchdown in his debut season with the Vols.
All of that changed against Vanderbilt.
Finally, the Vols’ highly-touted freshman running back broke on to the scene with his historic performance in Tennessee’s 28-10 victory over the Commodores. Not only did Gray run for his first career rushing touchdown, but he rushed for three of them on 25 carries in addition to 246 rushing yards.
Let’s start there.
Gray’s 246 yards on the ground were not only the most rushing yards by a Tennessee freshman ever, but it’s the most by an SEC player all season. The previous record by a UT freshman was held by Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 232 yards against Georgia in 1997. Gray also became the 13th different Vol ever to rush for at least 200 yards in a game.
Only three other Vols in school history have ever run for more yards than Gray in a single game. Chuck Webb holds the No. 1 and No. 2 rushing marks in Tennessee’s record books, totaling 294 yards against Ole Miss in 1989 and 250 yards against Arkansas in 1990. Tony Thompson ran for 248 yards against Mississippi State in 1990 as well, and Johnnie Jones totaled 248 yards too, doing so against Vanderbilt in 1983.
Otherwise, no other Vol running backs have run for more yards in a game than Gray did on Saturday. In fact, Gray is only the fourth Tennessee running back to run for over 200 yards in a game since 2000.
It had been 14 years since a Tennessee running back had eclipsed 200 rushing yards in a game. The last back to do so was Arian Foster in 2005 when he torched Vanderbilt for 223 yards.
Of the 19 times a Vol running back has run for over 200 yards in a game, five of those instances have come against Vanderbilt.
Gray’s performance isn’t just impressive from a Tennessee perspective, though; right now, he’s tops in the SEC in terms of most rushing yards in a single game.
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill previously held the mark for most rushing yards in a game this season by an SEC player. Hill rushed for 232 yards in a game against Arkansas earlier this season.
“First, I want to say all glory to God,” Gray said following the game. “It’s all glory to him, but that’s just a testament to the line. I came into the game prepared like I always do, and it broke for me tonight. It’s just a blessing to the O-line, blessing to the coaches.”
As for Gray’s three rushing touchdowns, it’s the first time a Vol has rushed for three touchdowns since John Kelly did so against Georgia Tech in the season opener of the 2017 season.
Gray’s first rushing touchdown came from 56 yards out with 3:04 remaining in the first quarter to give Tennessee a 7-3 lead. His second rushing touchdown was a 94-yard run to extend the Vols’ lead to 21-3. Gray’s 94-yard score is the second-longest rushing touchdown in program history and 10th-longest in SEC history.
“I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I know they made a heck of a block because when I broke, there was no one there,” Gray said of his long touchdown run. “Once I got past the line, there was no one there. That’s a dream of mine – to be backed up like that and to take it 94 yards. That’s always been a dream of mine, and it’s just a blessing to be able to do it.”
As for his third rushing touchdown, Gray ran it in from four yards out for Tennessee’s final score of the game. It put the cap on the Vols 18-point win.
“He played a heck of a game,” junior offensive lineman Trey Smith said of Gray’s performance. “I know when he scored that first touchdown, I tried to run down the field to celebrate with him.
“That is my buddy. We played each other in high school in the playoffs. I love the kid. He works hard every day. He is really mature for his age.”