Jay Graham: Running backs
Bio: Perhaps the title of this article isn’t quite fitting for Graham. He is part of UT’s new staff, but he’s also the lone holdover from the staff of former coach Derek Dooley. He’s also not new in the sense that he’s the most familiar with Tennessee as a program since he also saw it at as a player (1993-96) and was also a graduate assistant (2005).
As a player, Graham ranks seventh all-time in Tennessee rushing history with 2,609 yards. He had 11 100-yard games in 1995, a school record that still stands. He earned All-SEC Second Team honors in 1994 and 1995. He played in the NFL for six seasons with four different franchises after his career at UT.
He began his coaching career as a GA at Tennessee and then moved on to be the full-time running backs coach at UTC in 2006. He then had stops at the University of San Diego, Tennessee-Martin and Miami of Ohio before landing his first full-time SEC job as the running backs coach at South Carolina.
With the Gamecocks, he tutored running back Marcus Lattimore, who earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010. Graham then returned to Tennessee as the running backs coach in 2012. After the Vols suffered through one of their worst running seasons in history in 2011, Graham helped them more than double their rushing output in 2012 – from 70.4 yards per game to 160.3 yards per game.
What he has to work with: He’s expected to have everybody at his position back in 2013. While none of UTs backs are considered elite SEC players, both Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal have shown flashes of being capable starters. Neal was on his way to a 1,000-yard season before being slowed by an ankle injury. He finished the year with 708 yards and five touchdowns. Lane wasn’t far behind with 679 rushing yards and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average.
Behind them, rising junior Devrin Young and sophomore Quenshaun Watson have potential to be nice change-of-pace backs.
Graham’s biggest job might be on the recruiting trail though. Neal and Lane are adequate, but Tennessee hasn’t had a high-level SEC back in several years. Graham needs to help find one. Five-star Derrick Green of Richmond, Va., is the top target. If the Vols miss on him, they will keep searching. Currently committed prospects A.J. Turman (Georgia), Johnathan Ford (Vanderbilt) and Jordan Wilkins (Auburn) are other possibilities.
What they’ve said:
• "Jay is not only one of the most accomplished running backs in Tennessee history, but he has also proven to be one of the top running backs coaches in the SEC. Jay understands what it means to be a Vol, and we are thrilled to have him on our staff,” former coach Derek Dooley said of Graham when hiring him in December of 2011.
• "I do think that's important. It's really important to for our players and understanding that there are some players that have been there, done that and gone through the trials and tribulations and understanding of where to go. I'm going to work extremely hard to get that component on our staff,” Butch Jones on the importance of having an assistant coach on staff that understands the history and traditions of Tennessee.
• Tennessee’s improvement from 2011 to 2012 in the run game was remarkable. He’ll return almost every key component of that unit in 2013.
• He’s coached or played in seven bowl games.
Assessing the hire: Keeping Graham was somewhat of a no-brainer for Jones. Graham is extremely popular among Tennessee players and fans. He also has a proven record of developing talent and recruiting in the SEC.
It’s understandable that Jones didn’t want to keep a lot of the old staff around, but this just made too much sense.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS