Let’s be blunt for a second; the Vols running game sucked ass last season. You certainly can argue the running game isn’t as important to success as let’s say the 90s. However, if you want to be one of the best teams in college football, you have to have a running game.
According to stats from teamrankings.com, the Vols finished 81st in the nation with 4.0 yards per rush attempt. In 2018 Tennessee was even worse running the ball, finishing with 3.7 yards per attempt.
A deadly passing offense can do wonders for a rushing attack.
However, if opposing teams are playing 2-deep and still getting to the quarterback, you have problems. One of those problems is a terrible rushing attack.
The Vols 4.0 yard per rush attempt ranked 9th in the SEC but tied with Florida and Vanderbilt.
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For comparison purposes
Clemson – 6.0
Oklahoma – 5.8
Miss State – 5.1
LSU – 5.0
Alabama – 5.0
Georgia – 4.9
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In the final three games of the season, the Vols finished with 5.0 yards per attempt, which was good enough for 25th in the nation.
Against Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Indiana, Tennessee averaged over 40 more rushing yards per game than their season average.
It was easy to see the offensive line was starting to gel, the running backs were finding holes quicker, and the quarterback position wasn’t losing the game.
All those were huge factors. However, I’m giving a lot of credit to Eric Gray.
Against Vanderbilt and Indiana, Gray rushed for 332 yards on 39 attempts.
Looking back at the past eleven years, not many running backs come close to having a two-game performance like Gray ended the season with.
In 2015 against Vanderbilt and Northwestern, Jalen Hurd rushed for 250 yards. A year later, Joshua Dobbs, I know not a running back, rushed for 337 yards in two games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
You have to go back to 2009 to find a better two-game performance than Gray’s 332 yards. In 2009, Montario Hardesty rushed for 171 and 179 yards against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The other day Trey Wallace reported, Gray is putting in a lot of hard work. A source even noted, “Gray was one of the few bright spots at practice. It’s hard to bring him down, just crazy shifty.”
I’m not suggesting Gray is the next Alvin Kamara. I don’t want to be that guy.
However, if Gray can play anywhere close to the level he did in the last two games of the 2019 season, I think the Vols have a legit shot in every game in their unique SEC-only 2020 schedule.
Seven out of the past ten SEC East Champions averaged over 4.0 yards per attempt for the season. In fact, the average yards per attempt from the past ten SEC East Champions equals 4.71. In 2015 and 2016 the Gators averaged below the 4.0 mark and in 2011 the Bulldogs averaged 3.9 yards per attempt.
Year two under Jim Chaney could display a very explosive offense, but it all starts with the running game.