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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham instructs his players during a recent practice inside Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee senior running back Ty Chandler has led the team in rushing the past two seasons but still needs more than 1,000 yards to surpass the total that Jay Graham, his position coach, compiled for the Volunteers from 1993 to 1996.

Chandler, however, already has 10 more receptions in three years than Graham amassed in four, reflecting a difference in eras as the Vols prepare for their start to the Southeastern Conference's 2020 season a week from Saturday at South Carolina.

"The game has changed," Graham said this week on a Zoom call. "We used to line up and dot the I (formation), and we were probably more progressive than others as far as getting the ball to the backs, which helped me in coaching. We used to be I football, inside the box, 10-yard fight. We were running the ball 60 times, and that's all we did.

"Now, as a running back, you're the fifth receiver, and you might be the No. 1 receiver out there, so you've got to really understand the route concepts."

Graham doesn't have a problem commanding attention from his players after a career in Knoxville in which he rushed for 2,609 yards, including 1,438 in 1995, when he was an All-SEC selection on an 11-1 squad. He was a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 1997 and spent six seasons in the NFL with Baltimore, Seattle and Green Bay.

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Tennessee Athletics photo / Current Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham carries the ball as a Vols junior running back in 1995.

After returning to Tennessee to get his psychology degree in 2004 — he would add a master's in sports management in 2008 — Graham started his coaching career as a Vols graduate assistant in 2005 before earning his first full-time post a year later as the running backs coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Graham has coached at the Power Five level since 2009, when he was hired at South Carolina by Steve Spurrier, who was head coach of the Gamecocks at the time. He has worked multiyear stints at South Carolina, Florida State and Texas A&M, and he has coached seven running backs who were drafted, including South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams, and Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Dalvin Cook and Cam Akers.

The only single-season coaching stint of his Power Five career occurred at Tennessee during the third and final season of head coach Derek Dooley in 2012, so he obviously hopes this marriage to his alma mater can last significantly longer.

"I've always had a love for Tennessee and what it's meant to me," Graham said "It's more than just football. It's the university and this area. There was not a better place for me as a 17- or 18-year-old walking onto this campus and developing me into the type of man that I needed to be. I chose coaching because of the people who coached me.

"I've always envisioned myself here coaching, and I'm blessed to have the opportunity. I've been a lot of different places, but there is no place like Tennessee. There is no place like it."

Graham is not lacking for talent in a group headed by Chandler and sophomore Eric Gray that also includes freshmen Jabari Small and Tee Hodge. Though Chandler is the veteran, Gray is coming off a stout finish to his debut season that included a 246-yard rushing output against Vanderbilt and MVP honors in the Gator Bowl topping of Indiana.

"I'm really impressed by those two guys," Graham said. "They've done the things they're supposed to do to lead this room."

Said Chandler of Graham: "He's improved my game a ton."

Getting Chandler and Gray the ball whether through carries or receptions is an objective Graham is working to accomplish heading into the opening trip to South Carolina. The receiving element to his teachings is not only different from what he learned as a Vols player a quarter century ago but also from what he taught during his first go-around as a Tennessee assistant.

"That's why I say we have to do more than any other position," Graham said. "You've got to be able to pass protect. You've got to be able to run block with quarterbacks running the ball more. There are so many different things that come up, and that's the key. You've got to be able to move around and be adjustable."

 

Gamecocks tab Hill

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp announced Thursday afternoon that Collin Hill, a graduate transfer from Colorado State, will start the opener against Tennessee. Hill beat out sophomore Ryan Hilinski, who started 11 games last season.

"I thought both guys had outstanding training camps," Muschamp said. "We can win with both guys, bottom line. Ryan's had a really good camp. Obviously, there was an advantage for Collin playing for (offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo before."

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

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