KNOXVILLE — On Senior Day, a freshman made his mark.
During Tennessee’s 28-10 win over rival Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, first-year tailback Eric Gray had the game of his young career. He totaled three touchdowns and 246 yards rushing.
“I just came into the game prepared like I always do,” Gray said. “It broke for me tonight.”
The contest served as the Vols’ Senior Day, as it was the last game of the season at Neyland.
While Tennessee’s seniors, including dynamic wideouts Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway and astute linebacker Daniel Bituli, received the praise they deserve, Gray gave fans even more to cheer about.
Among his highlights, Gray’s 94-yard touchdown was the second-longest run in program history. It was also the second-longest run nation-wide this season.
His 246 yards also made him the first Tennessee running back with over 200 in a game since Arian Foster in 2005 and broke the Vols’ true freshman single-game record of 232 set by Jamal Lewis.
“Ty (Chandler) has had a banged up ankle so we kind of started with Tim (Jordan) and Eric (Gray) was gonna probably be the next guy in,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He got hot there. You think about that, a record at the University of Tennessee. Think of all the good runners that’s come through here.
“That says a whole heck of a lot about everybody involved … It’s a great accomplishment.”
Tennessee’s early-game play calling was focused on the pass, with the Vols throwing the ball on a majority of the plays on their first three possessions. Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano started poorly, throwing an interception and multiple incompletions, possibly due to the rainy conditions.
Tennessee’s coaching staff then turned to the running game, and it worked. The Vols ran the ball on six of their seven plays on the drive that ended with Gray’s, and Tennessee’s, first touchdown — a 56-yard carry.
“Early in the game, the ball was wet,” Pruitt said.
“You could tell. We didn’t throw the ball and catch the ball nearly as well as we have in the past. So we had to run the football, and the guys done a nice job.”
The Vols finished with 297 rushing yards — more than half of their 417 total yards. To put more into perspective what Gray’s performance meant to Tennessee, the Vols’ second leading rusher, Tim Jordan, had 40 yards on 11 carries.
“With me, it’s just about trusting the process,” Gray said. “We knew coming into the game it was going to be a rainy game so we’re going to have to run the ball. And I felt like the o-line did a great job and we just made the breaks.”
Gray came to Tennessee as a four-star recruit from Memphis’ Lausanne Collegiate School. He showed flashes of big-play ability early in the season but dropped off during the latter stages as veterans Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan took the majority of the reps.
Heading into the matchup with Vanderbilt, Gray has 207 yards and one touchdown on the season — numbers he surpassed in just one game on Saturday.
“Eric (Gray) has plenty of ability,” Pruitt said. “Lots of times, it comes with opportunities. You earn those opportunities in practice. Between Ty (Chandler) and Tim (Jordan), that’s a competitive room.
“With the way the season went, to me, I thought Eric, probably in the middle part of the season, maybe lost a step. Happens lots of times as a freshman.”
Gray’s help in snapping the Commodores’ winning streak over the Vols quickly brought him back into the limelight, though.
“Over the last probably couple weeks, (Gray) kind of looked like his old self and had a little more pep in his step,” Pruitt said. “Showed today.”