We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Our most recent piece looked at Tennessee’s wide receivers. Up next is a look at the Vols’ running backs.
Seniors: Tim Jordan, Ty Chandler, Carlin Fils-Aime (RS)
Sophomores: Eric Gray
Outside of the quarterback position, no position on Tennessee’s roster is more intriguing entering spring practice than the running back room. Will Zach Evans pick Tennessee? Will Chase Hayden pick the Vols after announcing his intentions to transfer from Arkansas? That’s to be seen.
For the sake of spring practice, it’s time for Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler to grab the bull by the horns and run with it while also trying to fend off Eric Gray.
Not only are there plenty of storylines surrounding roster moves at the running back position, but the room also has a new leader, though it is a familiar face. Jay Graham takes over as Tennessee’s running backs coach after David Johnson accepted the same position at Florida State under new head coach Mike Norvell.
This isn’t Graham’s first go-round at Tennessee. Graham starred at Tennessee as a running back in the mid-90’s. In 1995 and 1996, he earned All-SEC honors while leading the Vols in rushing in both seasons. Following his playing career, Graham has become one of the best running back coaches in the country. Now returning to Rocky Top for his second stint as an assistant coach for the Vols, Graham inherits quite the situation.
Jordan and Chandler enter their final spring practice as Tennessee Vols with a lot to prove. Sure, the duo has been on campus going on four years now, but they haven’t been able to separate themselves as the true No. 1 back.
Chandler enters his senior season No. 30 on Tennessee’s all-time rushing list with 1,590 rushing yards. The Nashville, Tennessee native is also just outside of the top 10 in UT history in all-purpose yards with 2,724 combined yards. Chandler has 13 career touchdowns, nine of which have been on the ground.
Chandler is also a threat as a kick returner. His 724 career kickoff return yards ranks No. 14 in school history. Chandler is a home run threat every time he touches the football, but he’s yet to prove himself as a reliable every down back.
As for Jordan, he started four games for the Vols last season and appeared in all but one game. Jordan finished third on the team in rushing with 428 yards and one touchdown on 104 carries while averaging 4.1 yards per carry. He caught six passes for 46 yards.
The sense of urgency is as high as it’s ever been for Chandler and Jordan because there’s simply no telling where the room will be at the beginning of fall camp in August. Not only will the Vols be adding three freshmen backs in the fall, but it appears Tennessee is going to add another one this spring, whether that be Evans or Hayden. It goes without saying, but it’s a critical spring for Chandler and Jordan to gain a sizable lead before anybody steps foot on campus.
Not only will Chandler and Jordan look to fend off any newcomers, but they’re also looking to make up ground on Eric Gray. The rising sophomore had as good of a finish to the 2019 season as anyone when he was named the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl MVP after rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown against Indiana after putting up a true freshman record on the ground in UT’s regular season finale against Vanderbilt.
Gray had an up-and-down freshman season, but overall it was a successful one. The Memphis native burst onto the scene in week two against BYU when he rushed for 77 yards. But Gray didn’t total more than 32 rushing yards in a game until 10 weeks later when he rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries in the season finale against Vanderbilt.
This spring will be key for Gray in his quest to continue to develop into an every down back for the Vols. There’s no questioning Gray’s natural ability, but it’s the details that he needs to continue to improve on, specifically in pass protection.
The forgotten man in the running back room is Carlin Fils-aime. He suffered an offseason injury heading into last year that required him to redshirt last season despite playing in three games. Fils-aime is healthy now and looks to carve out some playing time.
This spring is crucial for all four of Tennessee’s running backs. There’s only four in the room at the moment, but come fall, there will likely be four more. The Vols signed Jabari Small, Tee Hodge, and Len’Neth Whitehead in the 2020 recruiting cycle, and all three will be nipping at the heels of UT’s older backs to get on the field. Plus, if the Vols do end up landing Evans or Hayden, that’ll only put more pressure on the current backs. That’s why this spring is so critical for Chandler, Jordan, and Gray to take that next step and for Fils-aime to carve out a niche in the room.