Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. After taking a look at the wide receivers, we take a look at the Vols’ running backs next.
Seniors: Ty Chandler, Carlin Fils-aime (RS)
Sophomores: Eric Gray
Freshmen: Tee Hodge, Jabari Small, Len’Neth Whitehead
A notable departure
Tennessee’s running back room was dealt a blow this offseason when senior running back Tim Jordan got arrested for gun and possession charges and was eventually kicked off UT’s team by head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Jordan, at the worst, was likely to be the Vols’ third back this season and looked to provide key veteran depth at the unit.
Now, UT returns just two backs with extensive experience in the SEC, and the Vols have just two upperclassmen in the group.
Ty Chandler heads into his final season as a Vol hoping to cap off his career with another solid season. Chandler has 1,590 rushing yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 354 receiving yards and three scores in 36 career games played with UT. Chandler has been highly productive, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and 8.4 yards a catch in his Tennessee career. Chandler will battle for the starting role this season, but he’ll have some stout competition from sophomore Eric Gray (more on him in a moment).
The Vols’ other upperclassman running back is fifth-year senior Carlin Fils-aime. The former four-star out of Florida has not lived up to his billing at UT, but he could be a useful offensive weapon in his final year this season. He appeared in just three games last season after suffering an offseason injury and did not register any stats. After a brief foray into the defensive secondary in 2018, Fils-aime returned to running back mid-season and ended up with seven carries for 36 and a touchdown. In 33 career games, Fils-aime has 309 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries, giving him a 5.9 yard-per-carry average.
Is Gray ready to lead?
While Ty Chandler returns as the most experienced back on UT’s roster, all eyes will be on sophomore Eric Gray to start fall camp and at the beginning of the season.
Gray got off to a solid start in his freshman campaign last season, totaling 138 rushing yards and 60 receiving yards in Tennessee’s first three games. But once the Vols entered SEC play, Gray’s usage diminished.
That is, until Tennessee’s season finale.
Gray set a UT true freshman record by amassing 246 rushing yards and three scores on 25 carries in the Vols’ victory over Vanderbilt to end the regular season. Gray ripped off a 94-yard run in the contest, recording the second-longest rushing touchdown in program history. Gray followed that up by winning the Gator Bowl MVP in Tennessee’s come-from-behind victory over Indiana, totaling 86 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries to go along with two catches for 34 yards.
That explosive end to Gray’s freshman season has led a lot of optimism about the Memphis running back’s future as a Vol, and this fall will be huge for the young back as he tries to become the lead back in UT’s backfield.
Counting on the freshmen
Having Chandler and Gray as a duo in the backfield should lead to success for the Vols’ rushing attack this season, but Tennessee will need more than those two. Specifically, UT will need someone to step up as a power back in short-yardage situations.
Enter a duo of freshmen.
Both Tee Hodge and Len’Neth Whitehead have the frame and talent to be used as lead blockers in jumbo sets or as short-yardage running backs. Both were standouts in high school because of that power back ability, and Tennessee will need one or both of those freshman to fill that role this season.
Hodge hails from Maryville in east Tennessee, and the 6-foot, 220-pound back has the tools to be used as a fullback/H-back or a more conventional running back. Whitehead measures in at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and was a superb back in high school as well as a standout linebacker. He may ultimately end up on defense at Tennessee, but he will start out on offense.
Jabari Small is the Vols’ other running back signee in the 2020 class, but the Memphis running back will likely get a redshirt unless he becomes a big contributor on special teams. Small has the ability to line up in the slot at receiver as well, so his versatility could help him see the field. Fall camp will be important for him to try and find a role early on if possible.