KNOXVILLE -- Staying would have been the easier option for Jay Graham.
Continue coaching under a Southeastern Conference football guru.
One more year with a star tailback who was likely to be motivated coming off a serious knee injury.
The other option, at least on the periphery, seemed more unstable. But it was home.
That's all the former Tennessee tailback needed to leave his post as South Carolina's running backs and tight ends coach after three seasons to take the position as the Volunteers' running backs coach.
"It was tough because I enjoyed my years at South Carolina," Graham said Friday. "But it was easy in the fact that this is where I played and it's a part of who I am. It's also the place where I came back to cut my teeth as a graduate assistant coach. Tennessee was always a place where I saw myself coaching."
Graham still looks like he could suit up for the Vols. The school's seventh all-time leading rusher ran for 2,609 yards during his 1993-96 UT career before six years in the NFL with three teams. Instead he'll settle for coaching an unproven group of tailbacks and fixing a broken ground game that finished 116th nationally and averaged less than 3 yards per carry this past season.
It's a tall task that the 36-year-old Graham chose over a fourth year with the Gamecocks, who won a school-record 11 games in 2011. Leaving meant joining the rival school of Steve Spurrier, the South Carolina coach who gave Graham his first full-time assistant-coaching position. More importantly, though, it meant leaving 2010 SEC freshman of the year Marcus Lattimore.
Graham's recruiting helped persuade Lattimore to stay in state, and after his sophomore season was ended by torn knee ligaments in October, the 6-foot, 230-pound bruiser was poised for one last run at the Heisman Trophy as a junior before a likely departure to the NFL.
Sticking with player and a family with which he'd built a strong relationship wasn't lost on Graham, who admitted that was part of his thought process when mulling the UT opportunity.
"I did, and not because he's a Heisman Trophy candidate, but because he's a good young man," Graham said. "We talked about it. I said, 'You probably would go back and coach at your alma mater if you were in the same position,' and he agreed. It was a good talk."
Despite a losing record in his two seasons at UT and increasing pressure entering his third season, Vols coach Derek Dooley saw no need to sweeten his pitch to Graham, new offensive line coach Sam Pittman or new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"I just told them the truth of where we were," Dooley said. "Just like I recruit, I've been real honest with where I thought we were 23 months ago [and] why we haven't had the success the last two years that people outside of Knoxville probably aren't accustomed to seeing from Tennessee -- meaning they don't know what's going on, what we've done the last 23 months and where I think we're headed. I try to not sell in a way that's misleading, because I want them to come in here and have all the information.
"The worst thing I think you can do is if they get here and go, 'You didn't tell me that.' I tell them the truth, same thing I tell recruits. I believe in where we're headed and I believe in what we've done the last 23 months, and these guys do, too. That's all I know how to do it."
Graham knows how playing running back in the SEC is done. That, he said, is the most important appeal to the backs he'll try to lure to Knoxville. At now at UT, he simply can point to the wall where he's pictured inside the Vols' football complex.
"I'm a product of what I'm selling," he said. "I think a lot of backs that I've recruited, they can identify with me. I played in the NFL, I played in this conference. I think a lot of those guys can identify with that.
"Certainly you have to know how to coach them. I think that kind of validates it. I think it's good that you've been in their shoes, that you've played on different levels so that when they come off [to] the sideline you understand a little bit more about how they're feeling as you go through a game or go through practice."
Graham has yet to go through a practice with any of his new running backs, though he's seen some video on rising sophomores Marlin Lane and Tom Smith, the Vols' lone true returning tailbacks. Ben Bartholomew and Channing Fugate return at fullback. Freshman Alden Hill enrolled at UT this past week, and Graham is searching for another tailback to add to UT's 2012 class.
"I'm definitely excited," the 6-2, 220-pound Hill said last month in an interview with the Times Free Press. "[Graham] was great for that program and a great running back, so it's always nice to be coached by someone that's been there and not only been there, but been one of the best that's been there. It seems like he's got some good character, very charismatic and a good personality. It's hard for me not to like him."