Tennessee's Eric Gray on a 1,000-yard season: 'I think about that all the time'

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sophomore running back Eric Gray still has a shot at a 1,000-yard season after amassing 173 yards on 22 carries during the 30-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 21. The Volunteers have three games remaining.

When a college football team experiences a 2-5 season that includes a five-game losing streak, most every individual goal spirals along with it.

With Tennessee, there is one notable exception.

Sophomore running Eric Gray has been nothing short of superb after expressing a preseason desire to rush for 1,000 yards against a 10-game schedule consisting solely of Southeastern Conference opponents that resulted due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Memphis has rushed 132 times for 651 yards and needs 349 in the final three games against No. 6 Florida, No. 5 Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

"I think about that all the time," Gray said Tuesday afternoon. "It would still mean a lot, and I am still pushing for it with three games left. I think we've got enough chances to go out there and do it."

A repeat performance of last year's 25-carry, 246-yard eruption against the Commodores certainly would enhance his chances, but Gray shouldn't be lacking for confidence in his quest following his most recent effort. In Tennessee's 30-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 21, he pounded out 173 yards on 22 carries for a season-best showing.

No SEC running back has reached 1,000 yards this season, but a couple could this weekend. Kevin Harris leads the league with 928 yards heading into South Carolina's finale at Kentucky, while Alabama's Najee Harris is the most likely to win this year's rushing crown with 893 yards through eight games and contests remaining at LSU and at Arkansas.

Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M (784 yards in seven games) and Jerrion Ealy of Ole Miss (701 in eight) also harbor hopes of a 1,000-yard campaign.

Gray already has surpassed his freshman totals compiled over 13 games, when he amassed 539 yards on 101 rushes. His 5.3 yards per carry last season tops his 4.9-yard clip this year, but Gray has been the focal point of opposing defenses since his 16-carry, 105-yard output Oct. 3 during a 35-12 win over Missouri, which remains the most recent triumph for the Volunteers.

"His competitiveness and toughness are what impress me most," senior receiver Josh Palmer said. "He wants the ball, and he wants to show the world what he can do. It's our responsibility as receivers to help him show that.

"We're excited when he breaks long runs and we're blocking for him."

Gray cited his elusiveness and vision as his top traits in a promising career that was forever changed in middle school, when he was moved from quarterback to running back.

"I liked playing quarterback, but my eighth-grade offensive coordinator said the fastest man on the team needed to play running back," Gray said. "That's how I started playing running back. I was OK with his decision, because it was pretty fun."

Bennett dismissed

Redshirt junior linebacker Kivon Bennett is no longer with the Vols following an arrest Tuesday morning by campus police.

The son of former Alabama standout Cornelius Bennett was pulled over on Neyland Drive after traveling 59 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone. Police found more than 40 grams of marijuana in his vehicle as well as a loaded handgun, which would be separate felony charges.

"Kivon Bennett has been dismissed from our football program following a traffic stop earlier today," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Tuesday night in a statement. "There is a standard our student-athletes are expected to uphold at Tennessee, and today's incident fell well short of that standard."

The 6-2, 245-pounder from Fort Lauderdale has played in all seven games this season, compiling 22 tackles, a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.

Lewis decommits

Tennessee suffered a sizable recruiting blow this week when Terrence Lewis, the five-star inside linebacker from Miami Central announced that he was opening up his recruitment. The No. 1 inside linebacker nationally and No. 17 prospect overall, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, committed to the Vols on April 30.

The Vols climbed as high as No. 2 nationally in the 247Sports team rankings during May but are now 13th with the Dec. 16 early signing period right around the corner.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.