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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee running back Eric Gray leaves the Vanderbilt defense in his wake on the way to a 94-yard touchdown in the first half Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
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Tennessee 28, Vanderbilt 10

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KNOXVILLE — Eric Gray has had a longer run before.

A simple look at his high school stats at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis — as impressive as they were with 7,901 rushing yards and 123 touchdowns in his final three seasons — shows the Tennessee freshman running back had a 98-yard run as a senior against St. George's.

So while his 96-yard touchdown run in the Volunteers' 28-10 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday wasn't his longest, it was equally impactful.

The game-breaking back also had a 92-yard run against Harding Academy as a senior, a 91-yard run against the University School of Jackson and two 80-yard runs for good measure, one as a junior and one as a sophomore.

Gray was one of a number of newcomers who were expected to make an impact for Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt's first full recruiting class in Knoxville, but entering Saturday's game against the Commodores, Gray had 207 yards on 62 carries in 11 games. His longest carry was 16 yards against Florida, and in his previous seven games he had logged only 24 carries.

But iron sharpens iron, and Gray continued to work in practice alongside juniors Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan. It didn't immediately pay off, but with inclement weather causing multiple delays and slowing a Tennessee passing attack that had 415 yards just a week earlier in a 24-20 win over Missouri, the Vols finally ditched an offensive approach that featured seven passes on its first nine plays — all incomplete — and turned to a rushing focus against a Vanderbilt defense that ranked 110th against the run.

First it was Jordan, who carried four times for 21 yards on the Vols' fourth possession. But it was Gray who broke free, going 56 yards untouched for a score.

A quarter later, it was the 94-yard outburst — a Southeastern Conference freshman record — that put Tennessee up 21-3.

Gray put his name above Jamal Lewis with a Tennessee freshman-record 246 rushing yards in the win, which halted a three-game Vanderbilt win streak in the series and gave the Vols their sixth win in seven games and fifth consecutive victory of 2019. Gray ended up with three scores.

"I'm not surprised," senior receiver Marquez Callaway said. "The running backs go at each other hard in practice; they have a thing where they run downfield and celebrate because they envision themselves going and scoring. You can see they like each other with how they all came out on the field because they were happy for Eric."

Pruitt said afterward that the plan was to run with Jordan and then turn to Gray, who "got hot," the coach said.

"You think about a record at the University of Tennessee," Pruitt said. "Think about all those good runners that have come through here. That says a whole heck of a lot of everyone involved, starting with the quarterback getting us in the right place and the offensive staff doing a heck of a job game-planning. (Also) the front, the tight ends, the wide receivers blocking downfield and finishing the run.

"It was a great accomplishment."

Tennessee (7-5, 5-3) ran for a season-high 297 yards against the Commodores (3-9, 1-7).

"That's just a testament to the line," Gray said. "We came into the game prepared, and things just broke for me tonight.

"We knew coming into the game that it was going to be a rainy game and we would have to run the ball. I felt the O-line did a great job and I just made the breaks."

Gray's breaks have served as a reminder that while the seniors have led the way for the Vols during their resurgence, there was a reason so many were excited about this freshman class.

Now assured of a winning record with a bowl game to play and an offseason to continue to improve, Gray's longest run in college could wind up in jeopardy — much like his high school runs always seemed to be.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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