In late 2019, Eric Gray started to emerge into the player he had been touted to be coming out of high school. When the rubber met the road, Gray got going for Tennessee in the second half of the season. He broke a single-game freshman record for rushing yards against Vanderbilt and added an MVP award to his trophy case from the Gator Bowl. So, Gray captivated fans, and he now has expectations to go along with it. Gray could be the future at running back for Tennessee, and he has given the Big Orange faithful reason to believe it, so I want to take a look at where he stands against some of the all-time greats to come through Knoxville in comparison to their freshman seasons, and how they fared in their sophomore campaign.
Gray carried the ball 101 times for 539 yards and 4 touchdowns in his freshman campaign, while he added another 13 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. The five VFL's I am comparing Gray to are all on the top 10 all-time rushing yardage list for Tennessee, including Jamal Lewis, Arian Foster, Jay Graham, Jalen Hurd, and James Stewart. Travis Henry is obviously, the all-time leading rusher, but he only carried the ball two times in his freshman season.
We will start with Graham, Gray's new running back's coach. In his 1993 freshman campaign, Graham did not break the century mark for the season. He totaled 99 yards on only 28 carries. Graham's sophomore season did not see much more of a breakout effort, as he was not the top weapon on the depth chart, but he did see an increase to 61 carries, totaling 275 yards and 2 scores. Despite waiting for his turn, Graham still made the most of his career at Tennessee, and he finished with 2,609 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns, but his early years, especially his freshman season, did not see him have the impact or expectations that are now upon Gray.
One of the reasons Graham waited his turn was because of James "Little Man" Stewart. The 1st round draft choice carried the ball 256 times during Graham's first two seasons in Knoxville. However, Stewart's most carries came during his freshman season in 1991 when he rushed for 939 yards and 8 touchdowns on 190 carries. Following that campaign, Stewart only carried the ball 85 times for 386 yards and 7 touchdowns. Stewart burst onto the scene during his initial campaign but did not have the same success the following season.
Jamal Lewis carried the ball almost 500 times in three seasons for Tennessee, and almost half of that came in his 1997 freshman campaign. Lewis rushed the ball 232 times for 1,364 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was well on his way to another workhorse type season in 1998 before a season-ending injury on the Plains of Auburn cut his sophomore campaign short. Through basically three and a half games, Lewis rushed for 497 yards and three touchdowns on just 73 carries. He was well on his way to another season that would have seen him vying for national honors.
Next up on the list is Arian Foster. Foster came out of the gates swinging during his freshman season, as he carried the ball 183 times for 879 yards and 5 touchdowns in a season that saw him break the 1,000 yard mark in total yards from scrimmage, but he hit a bit of a sophomore slump in 2006. His workload was cut in half, and he only rushed for 322 yards on just 91 carries. He would go on to rush for nearly 1,800 more yards over the course of his career, and he finished with 2,964 yards and 23 touchdowns for his rushing totals over 4 years.
The last person up on the list is the last back to bring as much excitement into the off-season as Gray has, in my opinion, and it is Jalen Hurd. Hurd got to work right away at Tennessee, and he lived up to the hype. He carried the ball 190 times for 899 yards during 2014, and he followed that effort with 277 carries for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. A healthy Hurd would have likely shattered several Tennessee records had he returned to Knoxville for his final season, but he opted to transfer to Baylor. He totaled 2,635 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns during his time on Rocky Top.
While Gray's freshman season statistical is only better than Graham's, he did not see the same workload as others on this list did. However, guys like Stewart and Foster had significant drops in production following their stellar Freshman outings. Gray should see an expansive role this fall, and if he shows the same consistency with increased touches, he could very well be on his way to being on this list of all-time greats.