Jim Chaney’s offense comes with high expectations, especially considering what he’s done in recent years at Georgia with Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and company. The running backs have been the star of the show for Chaney lately, though he’s won in quite a few different ways.
He walks into a good situation at Tennessee in terms of talent at the skill positions within the offense. On paper, Chaney will have several different backs who can win in different ways. We saw him utilize them in various ways during the spring game, perhaps giving us a preview of what we can expect this fall.
With that, let’s take a look at the top five guys on the running back depth chart heading into the fall.
All-Purpose: Ty Chandler
Is Chandler cut out for a bell-cow role at the college level? Last year might have suggested that he isn’t. However, he’s cut out for today’s game as a guy that can win in space. The issue last year was getting him in space — something that former offensive coordinator Tyson Helton didn’t seem real interested in doing.
Maybe this is where Jim Chaney can make a difference.
Ty Chandler in two parts.— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) July 10, 2019
Reasons for excitement: Among SEC backs, Tennessee's RB ranked No. 1 as a receiver and No. 5 in "breakaway percentage," per PFF.
Issues of concern: Nearly 50% of yards came on just 8 carries in 2018. He averaged a paltry 3.2 ypc on his other 104 runs.
Getting Chandler more involved in the passing game seems like a natural thing to do — especially considering the attention that Tennessee’s receivers are going to demand. Screens, flats, even more simple check downs are areas where Chandler could help this offense move the chains in 2019.
Chandler handled 115 carries in 2018, going for 630 yards. That comes out to 5.5 yards per carry. The rising junior tailback only caught 19 passes, despite averaging nearly ten yards per catch and scoring on three of those receptions.
Chaney worked both Chandler and Jordan out of the slot during the spring game, so that’s a development worth following as camp begins.
One other key will be Chandler’s health. The 5-11, 201 pound back “got his bell rung” according to Jeremy Pruitt in the 2018 opener against West Virginia. That forced him to miss the following game against ETSU. Chandler also missed time later in the year against Charlotte.
Between-the-tackles: Tim Jordan
Jordan emerged in a platoon role with Chandler in 2018, following the departure of John Kelly. The 5-11, 203 pound back ran with a similar, angry style, bursting onto the scene against West Virginia. He ran for 118 yards on that day, filling in for an injured Chandler.
Unfortunately for Jordan, he never matched that production again in 2018. In total, Jordan handled 132 carries for 522 yards, averaging just four yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns.
During the 2018 season, Pruitt publicly called out Jordan’s decision making as a runner. This spring, running backs coach David Johnson talked about working with Jordan through that tough love.
“It’s one of the first things I did with him. Made him a cut-up, showed him the yards that he left on the field,” Johnson said in the spring. “Now he’s being a little more physical, he’s making some long runs. He’s owning up to that.”
Jordan should remain as the second rushing option in the 2019 offense.
Big Back: Jeremy Banks
Jeremy Banks had an interesting 2018 season. Coming in as a three-star prospect, he wasn’t really expected to push for playing time — especially with grad-transfer Madre London on the roster. But he did, in fact, push for playing time.
With Chandler out against ETSU, Jeremy Pruitt got a long look at Banks as a runner. He handled 13 carries on that day, running for 62 yards and two touchdowns. More than any stat that we can throw out, it was his attitude and style that stood out on that day. He ran hard — he ran through people. It was something that Tennessee didn’t really have on their roster.
There was just one problem. He couldn’t hang on to the football. Banks fumbled against ETSU, UTEP and Georgia, prompting a move to linebacker. The move was initiated by Banks himself on the sidelines during the Georgia game.
He spent the rest of 2018 bouncing from offense to defense, filling depth concerns wherever he was needed. However, this spring, he moved back full time to running back. Banks is now expected to fill the ‘big back’ role for Tennessee in 2019, assuming his fumbling issues are behind him.
You can probably expect to see ‘The Bull’ during short-yardage situations.
Wildcard: Eric Gray
Tennessee added their running back in the 2019 class just before the early signing period deadline in December. Gray, a top 200 prospect in the class, committed to Tennessee after decommitting from Michigan.
The 5-10, 195 pound back broke all kinds of records in the state of Tennessee in high school. In fact, Gray was a three time winner of the Mr. Football Award within the state, running for over 8,000 yards in his career. He also registered a ridiculous 124 rushing touchdowns in that span. Gray is the only three time winner of the Tennessee Mr. Football Award.
Now he arrives in Knoxville, perhaps with a chance to contribute early on. Gray had a shoulder issue hold him out of spring practice, but is expected to be ready for the fall.
It would only take one injury for the door to open for Gray, assuming he can get comfortable enough in the offense during fall camp.
Depth: Carlin Fils-aime
After bouncing to defensive back last spring, Fils-aime bounced back to offense in the fall. Now a senior, Fils-aime will provide Tennessee with depth at the running back position.
After coming back to the offensive side of the ball, Fils-aime handled seven carries that went for 36 yards. He had a season-high three carries against South Carolina, scoring from 14 yards out. Fils-aime has just 52 carries in three seasons at Tennessee, but has a healthy 5.9 yards per carry average.
The 5-11, 180 pound back likely won’t push for playing time this fall, but he’s a veteran body that will be there if needed.