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Why Jay Graham is a Home Run Hire for Jeremy Pruitt

(Photo via Brian Perroni/247Sports)

It was reported on Tuesday evening that Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has hired former Vol running back and Texas A&M co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Jay Graham to be UT’s next running backs coach. Graham replaces David Johnson after Johnson left the Vols to take a similar role at Florida State under new head coach Mike Norvell.

Graham has a strong track record as a coach and recruiter, and he was one of the best running backs to ever play at Tennessee. For all of those reasons and more, he’s an absolute home run hire for Pruitt.

As a Vol, Graham is a record holder and is in the top 10 in career rushing yards. His 11 games of 100-plus rushing yards in 1995 are the most in a single season in school history, and his 14 career games of 100-plus rushing yards are the second-most in a Tennessee career. Graham’s 2,609 career rushing yards are the eighth-most in school history, and his 25 career rushing touchdowns are tied for the 10th-most in program history. He also has the fifth-most carries in a UT career with 540 during his career from 1993-96.

Those credentials alone make him uniquely qualified to coach running backs at Tennessee. But it goes much deeper than that for Graham.

Graham has coached five running backs to 1,000-yard seasons since taking over at a Power Five school in 2009, and he almost had a sixth this past season at Texas A&M when freshman Isaiah Spiller totaled 946 yards after taking over starting duties.

The veteran position coach has recruited some studs to the schools he’s been to, and he’s also been impressive with players who weren’t as highly rated coming out of high school or players who had disappointing seasons before Graham arrived. Look no further than his first stint at Tennessee in 2012.

When Graham was brought in to coach UT’s running backs by Derek Dooley in 2012, the Vols’ rushing attack was the worst in the SEC and looked anemic. Tennessee averaged a mere 90.1 yards per game and just 2.8 yards per carry as a team in 2011.

Tennessee’s passing attack gets most of the attention from the 2012 season, but Graham worked wonders with the Vols’ rushing game that season, too.

The Vols averaged 70 more yards per game on the ground in 2012 than in 2011, and their yard per carry averaged jumped from 2.8 before Graham took over to 4.7 in his one year as RBs coach. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane backed up Tauren Poole in 2011, and the two combined for just 414 yards and four rushing scores. Under Graham, the two became a legit one-two punch, totaling a combined 1,366 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the year. The duo also combined to catch 48 passes for 377 yards and four scores.

Graham should get a lot of credit for that turnaround, but so should Jim Chaney, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator that year. Now, the two are reunited again on UT’s staff for the 2020 season.

But Graham’s work at Tennessee isn’t the only example of why he’s a slam dunk addition to Pruitt’s staff. He’s had success everywhere he’s been at the Power Five level.

Steve Spurrier brought Graham on to his staff in 2009 and gave Graham his first Power Five opportunity. Prior to that, Graham had coached at Chattanooga, San Diego, UT-Martin, and Miami of Ohio.

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In his first year, Graham helped improved the Gamecocks’ rushing attack by nearly 30 yards per game from 2008, and their yard per carry average went from 2.9 to 3.6. In 2010, Graham helped South Carolina land five-star running back Marcus Lattimore, and the talented back hit the ground running, totaling 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground while adding 29 receptions for 412 yards and two scores. Lattimore was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2010. Injuries limited Lattimore in 2011, but he still totaled 818 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games. By the end of his career, Lattimore held the school record for career rushing touchdowns with 38.

Breaking records has been a theme for running backs under Graham’s tutelage, and it happened again once he got to Florida State.

In 2013, Graham’s first year at FSU, he helped Devonta Freeman eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career, totaling 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards a carry. Graham also took Karlos Williams, who had played defensive back the previous two seasons for the Seminoles, and developed him into a home run threat. Williams had 730 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on just 91 carries in 2013.

The next year, Williams again proved effective, totaling 689 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 29 passes for 265 yards and a score. But Williams was again the backup running back for the Seminoles, and that’s because he, again, was playing second fiddle to a future NFL player.

Graham helped bring in five-star Dalvin Cook in the 2014 recruiting class, and the freshman made an immediate impact at FSU, running for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns while splitting time with Williams. The next season, Cook was voted a First Team All-American as he totaled 1,691 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 7.4 yards a carry. He also won the Jim Brown Award, given annually to the top running back in college football.

Cook was even better in 2016, competing for the Heisman Trophy and earning unanimous All-American honors while also being up for the Doak Walker Award and the Maxwell Award. Cook broke his own school record for rushing yards in a season, amassing 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 488 receiving yards and a score on 33 catches. He finished his FSU career as the Seminoles’ career leader in rushing yards, totaling 4,464 yards and 46 touchdowns in his three seasons at FSU.

After Cook came another five-star talent that Graham helped reel in, and that was Cam Akers. The dynamic back went over 1,000 rushing yards as a freshman, totaling 1,025 yards and seven scores on 194 carries. He broke Cook’s school record for most rushing yards by a freshman. His backup, Jacques Patrick, totaled 748 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the Seminoles a legit duo in the backfield.

Graham followed Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M in 2018, and he immediately helped make the Aggies’ rushing attack one of the best in the SEC.

Trayveon Williams had a strong freshman year at Texas A&M in 2016, rushing for over 1,000 yards. But his production took a step back in 2017, as he managed 798 yards and eight touchdowns on 173 carries.

Coming into 2018, Williams had 1,855 career rushing yards, 2,138 yards from scrimmage, and 16 total touchdowns. In his first and only year with Graham as his position coach, Williams nearly doubled his career totals in the 2018 season alone.

Williams broke Texas A&M’s school record for single-season rushing yards and all-purpose yards in a single season when he amassed 1,760 rushing yards and 18 scores and totaled 2,038 total yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. He was a Second Team All-American selection and a First Team All-SEC back.

This past season, Texas A&M’s running back room was hurt by injuries, as starter Jashaun Corbin suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, and Vernon Jackson suffered a career-ending neck injury before the season began. Despite all that and a couple backs entering the NCAA transfer portal, the Aggies still managed to have a solid season on the ground thanks to four-star freshman Isaiah Spiller.

The 6-foot-1 back was named to the Freshman All-SEC team after totaling 946 rushing yards and 10 scores and 203 receiving yards in his first year with the Aggies.

If all those individual performances by running backs isn’t enough to persuade you about Graham’s credentials as a running backs coach, then take a look at what he’s done to transform a team’s rushing attack as whole.

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With the exception of Florida State in 2013, Graham’s presence on a coaching staff has led to an immediate uptick in production and efficiency from his team’s backfield. At Florida State, there wasn’t some dramatic drop-off from the previous year to his first year, either; FSU went from averaging 205.9 yards and 5.6 yards a carry in 2012 to 203.1 yards and 5.6 yards a carry in Graham’s first year.

Everywhere else, Graham’s teams showed a major improvement on the ground in his first year as a coach on staff.

South Carolina averaged 94.1 yards a game and 2.9 yards a carry in 2008. In Graham’s first year as running backs coach in 2009, the Gamecocks averaged 121.2 yards and 3.6 yards per carry.

At Tennessee, the Vols went from rushing for 90.1 yards a game and averaging 2.8 yards a carry in 2011 to a whopping 160.3 yards and 4.7 yards a carry in Graham’s first (and only) year in 2012.

Texas A&M averaged 155.6 rushing yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry in 2017. In Graham’s first year on the job, the Aggies averaged 219 yards a game and 5.3 yards a carry.

David Johnson did a good job with Tennessee’s running backs in 2019, helping improve the Vols’ rushing average from 129.1 yards a game and 3.7 yards per rush in 2018 to 144.1 rushing yards a game and 4.1 yards a carry after he moved over to running backs coach last offseason. But Graham’s track record speaks for itself; he’s an elite recruiter who gets the most out of the talented backs he coaches.

Tennessee’s running backs should be excited about Graham being brought on board, and the Vols’ potential starting offensive line next season should also make UT’s backs ready for the season to begin. If Georgia transfer Cade Mays gets eligible for the 2020 season, the Vols’ line will likely consist of four former five-star linemen starting along the line with the fifth starter being a sixth-year player and a former four-star prospect.

Graham has about as strong of a track record as you could ask for, and he’s familiar with several coaches on Tennessee’s staff. He coached under Jim Chaney once before in 2012, and UT’s current defensive coordinator, Derrick Ansley, was also on staff with the Vols that season. Not only that, but Graham and Pruitt were on the same Florida State staff in 2013.

Whether it’s on the recruiting trail, on the field, in practice, or in a meeting room, Jay Graham should prove to be an immensely valuable asset to Tennessee.

Pruitt smashed it out of the park with his hire of Jay Graham as Tennessee’s running backs coach. Now, the Vols will try and capitalize on that hire by landing five-star running back Zach Evans to cap off their 2020 recruiting class.

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