KNOXVILLE — As he sat on the bus that took Tennessee’s football team to its season opener on Aug. 31, freshman running back Eric Gray felt something surreal.
Gray was no longer in his back yard or in an empty field with friends. He was not about to play with his Lausanne Collegiate School teammates.
He was on his way to Neyland Stadium.
“I was like, ‘I’m actually about to play college football,’” Gray said this week. “I grew up watching college football, but I’m actually about to play. To actually go out there and do that felt amazing.”
An impressive debut followed for the Memphis product. Gray dazzled on his first touch when he ran through the right side, made two defenders miss and cut back to the left for a 6-yard gain. Even then he was trying to grasp the reality of his orange and white uniform, but he already had proven he belonged.
At the same time, another Tennessee freshman was dazzling on defense.
Middle linebacker Henry To’o To’o wasted little time making a name for himself in his collegiate debut. Starting in place of the injured Daniel Bituli, To’o To’o made solo tackles on the third and fourth snaps of his career.
By the time the Vols got off the field after Georgia State’s second offensive possession, To’o To’o had made four tackles.
Unlike Gray, To’o To’o said it hit him during summer workouts that he was a college player. That didn’t stop him from being impressed by everything he experienced on his first game day — everything from the Vol Walk to running through the ‘T’ before the game.
“It was more than I thought it would be,” To’o To’o said. “I truly love the fans and how dedicated and supportive they are.”
That support is being tested following the Vols’ 0-2 start that is lowlighted by a loss to Sun Belt Conference cellar-dwellar Georgia State on the afternoon To’o To’o and Gray tasted college football for the first time. They’ll have a chance to pick up their first win on Saturday afternoon when they play host to FCS foe Chattanooga at noon.
In the face of that adversity, however, the two freshmen remain confident in the long run. They didn’t come to Tennessee expecting to win championships in their first season. As coach Jeremy Pruitt continues to highlight how young the Vols are, it becomes more evident that he doesn’t expect a return to the mountain top this year.
Through his willingness to play freshmen from the get-go Pruitt is committing to the future. Gray and To’o To’o are not the only first-year players who have contributed.
Cornerback Warren Burrell has started both games. Offensive lineman Wanya Morris started at left tackle in the opener and appeared as a sub in the second game. Offensive lineman Darnell Wright has played in both games, too.
Wide receiver Ramel Keyton has played in both games and picked up 10 yards on a run around the end in the opener. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch and defensive back Jaylen McCollough have appeared in both games. Linebacker Roman Harrison and defensive back Jerrod Means played in one game each.
At one point in the second quarter against BYU, To’o To’o, Burrell, Harrison and Crouch were on the field at the same time.
Several weeks ago Pruitt told the media about something his father — also a coach — told him about playing freshmen. In short, Pruitt’s father told him, every freshman you play is worth one loss. Pruitt would love to play more seniors and juniors, but the Vols are so thin in some positions that the freshmen are the best players available.
“We had some guys that weren’t ready in the first game or second game, but we had to play them, if that makes sense,” he said. “That’s kind of where we’re at as a program, There’s lots of opportunity here. We’ll continue to play some young guys, and we’ll play more and more guys as the year goes.
“There’s a little bit that comes with growing as a football player. All of these guys that we signed in this last year’s class all have the potential to be really good football players, but every one of them were better football players in their senior year in high school than their freshman year in high school. That’ll be the same way at Tennessee.”
Gray and To’o To’o, on the other hand, appear to be ready for the college level.
The only player in Tennessee history to win three Mr. Football awards, Gray set the state record for career touchdowns with 138. He rushed for 7,901 yards in his last three years of high school. None of that would have been possible if he didn’t have the ability to break long runs.
In large part due to his elusiveness, he has looked close to breaking a long run in his first two games with the Vols. He has 24 carries for 106 yards, which gives him an average of 4.4 yards per carry. He is also second on the team with eight receptions for 56 yards.
In all, he is averaging 81 scrimmage yards per game, but he has yet to score a touchdown. He’s confident it’s only a matter of time.
“I definitely can feel it,” Gray said. “It kind of feels like high school again trying to break those long runs, and I’m just waiting for one to pop.”
Gray has made plenty of his teammates miss during practice, though To’o To’o didn’t give any insight when asked how many times Gray has made him miss. To’o To’o did smile and say their one-on-one matchups are ‘about even.’
If To’o To’o stays on the same upward trajectory, however, he will likely have an upper hand on opposing running backs in the near future. Though he is new to the college game, Tennessee coaches have given him partial responsibility to call defensive plays.
It’s still a work in progress especially based on how poor the Vols looked against Georgia State, but they were better against BYU.
Not much has been good so far, but To’o To’o said there is no reason to panic. He and his fellow freshmen are here for the long haul.
“(I chose Tennessee because) I saw Coach Pruitt’s vision,” he said. “I trusted Coach Pruitt, and I still do. I love what he has going on and the things that he tells us are going to happen.”