Receiving attention early on in his career is nothing new to Tennessee running back Eric Gray.
As a sophomore at Lausanne Collegiate School in 2016, Gray won Tennessee’s Mr. Football award. After excelling as a 10th-grader, the buzz around Gray was whether or not he could do it again. He promptly won the Mr. Football award for a second consecutive year, before becoming the first to ever win it three years in a row as a senior.
Gray now faces the same questions entering his sophomore season at Tennessee. Expectations are high for the Memphis native following two standout performances to end the 2019 season. Gray rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the season-finale against Vanderbilt before tallying a game-high 120 all-purpose yards, recovering an onside kick and scoring the game-winning touchdown against Indiana to earn MVP honors in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
“If you want to be a great player, you have to be consistent and that’s what I look at,” Gray said in a media availability recently. “Last season was a good season for me, but it wasn’t my best season. My best season is yet to come and I’m working hard for that, wanting to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
“Wanting to be that, you have to know you have to be consistent all the time. You have to be consistent and you have to be perfect all the time. Last year was last year, but you have to do it again.”
Gray is focused on consistency entering year two because in the 11 games prior to the explosive finish to end his rookie campaign, he rushed for more than 32 yards just once, when he rushed for 77 yards against BYU the second game of the season.
First-year running back coach Jay Graham has already helped Gray improve over just one offseason as the Vols’ running back coach. Graham is back on Rocky Top for his second stint as an assistant coach following stops at Florida State and Texas A&M. David Johnson served as UT’s running back coach last season, but accepted a job on Mike Norvell’s coaching staff at FSU.
“Coach (Jay) Graham is an unbelievably great guy,” Gray said. “He’s taught me so much in just the short time that he’s been here; being able to read a front, read a defense, safety rotation and different things like that which I never really thought about. Drawing on the boards. He’s really great with details, he really harps on the details; making sure you’re aligned correctly, you hit the hole correctly, you press the linebackers correctly. Things like that which are going to help you get to the next level.”
Gray’s focal point for his sophomore season is to “really take it to the next level.” He views his freshman year as “pretty good,” but now he’s focused on being a game-changer.
“Eric has really good leadership ability,” Jeremy Pruitt said Friday following practice. “He works hard all the time. He’s a really good practice player. He works hard in the weight room. He’s probably put on 10 pounds since last year.
“Him working hard in practice and in the classroom, that’s who he is and who he was in high school. That’s just the way he’s wired.”
Senior Ty Chandler is expected to pair with Gray in the backfield as Tennessee’s top two running backs this season. Chandler and Gray were the Vols’ top two backs last year, combining to rush for 1,194 yards and seven touchdowns on 236 carries.
The Vols will need a third running back to step up following the offseason departure of Tim Jordan. Tee Hodge, Len’Neth Whitehead and Jabari Small all arrive on campus after signing with Tennessee during the 2020 recruiting cycle.
“Those freshmen came in, they’re very talented and they came in and are pushing me and Ty (Chandler) every day,” Gray said. “Me and Ty getting together and teaching them what we know. Ty (Chandler) teaching me what he knows, he’s got a little more experience. Going at it every day, getting with the offensive line and going over run schemes, going over pass schemes so we are perfect so they can be perfect with that deep offensive line and we can just be perfect and do everything right.”
Tennessee is scheduled to kick off its 2020 season on Sept. 26 with a road trip to South Carolina. The Vols will return home a week later for their home-opener against Missouri on Oct. 3.