Vols' Eric Gray would love to be first 1,000-yard rusher in 10-game SEC schedule

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee running back Eric Gray looks for running room against BYU last September in Neyland Stadium.

Somebody could make Southeastern Conference football history this season by becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher against a 10-game league schedule.

Tennessee sophomore Eric Gray wouldn't mind having that distinction.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Memphis erupted at the end of last season, shredding Vanderbilt for 246 yards on 25 carries and following that up with a 14-carry, 86-yard showing in the Gator Bowl against Indiana. Gray earned MVP honors with his performance in Jacksonville but knows that averaging 100 yards per week against league opposition would be quite the task.

"We're going to have to take care of our bodies for sure for that to happen, and it would be a great thing to do," Gray said Thursday on a Zoom call. "If you can go out there and play 10 straight SEC games and go out there and put 1,000 yards up - who knows? Maybe you can put 2,000 yards up.

"If you can go out there and prove that you're that back playing 10 SEC games - no one has ever done that. If you could be the first to do it, that would be pretty special."

Tennessee's last 1,000-yard rusher was Jalen Hurd, who tallied 1,288 yards in 2015.

Standing in the way would be the typically stout rushing defenses of Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia, with the Bulldogs having led the nation in that category last season, yielding just 74.6 yards per game. Mississippi State's Kylin Hill is the SEC's top returning rusher, but 43.3% of his 1,350 yards last season came at the expense of the nonconference quartet of Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi, Kansas State and Abilene Christian.

Gray certainly could be challenged from within his own roster by senior Ty Chandler, who actually led the Volunteers last season with 655 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The 366 yards that Gray amassed in his last two games accounted for the majority of his 539 yards that yielded 5.3 per rush.

"If you want to be a great player, you've got to be consistent, and that's what I look at," Gray said. "Last season was a good season for me, but I don't think it was my best season. My best season is yet to come. I'm working to be one of the greatest players who's ever played the game.

"Wanting to be that, you've got to be consistent all the time, and to be consistent all the time, you've got to be perfect all the time. Last year was last year, but you've got to do it again."

Gray worked under running backs coach David Johnson last season but is now under the tutelage of Jay Graham, who had a 1,458-yard season for the 11-1 Vols in 1995.

"Coach Graham is an unbelievably great guy," Gray said. "You can see the experience that he has coaching running backs, and he's taught me so much in the short time that he's been here as far as being able to read a defense with things like safety rotation and things that I never really thought about.

"He's really great with details and harps on the details."

Lloyd injured

South Carolina, which hosts Tennessee on Sept. 26 as part of the SEC's opening weekend, has lost freshman running back MarShawn Lloyd for the season due to a torn ACL. The 5-9, 211-pounder who graduated from Dematha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, was the nation's No. 5 running back and No. 43 prospect overall in the 2020 signing class.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.