It was a solid, but unspectacular year for the Tennessee rushing attack, complete with a clear peak at the end of the season. The duo of Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan ended up being overshadowed by freshman Eric Gray in the final month as the former four-star recruit made his case to be the lead runner in 2020.
Now with the entire offensive line coming back — and adding former five-star recruit Cade Mays to the mix — all three of these backs could be set to benefit.
Before we get to that, let’s review how their 2019 season went.
Chandler ended up being Tennessee’s leading rusher on the year, adding 655 yards on 135 carries for the Volunteers. Chandler looked like he was ready for a big season after the BYU game, turning in a 154 yard performance. But he never really found his stride after that game.
His best game after that was the UAB contest, where the Tennessee offense leaned on his 85 rushing yards to win a pretty ugly game. After all the talk of using him out of the slot and getting him going in space, Chandler caught just 13 passes for 63 yards this year. Three of those receptions came in the Bowl win over Indiana.
The 5-11, 201 pound rising senior clearly has straight-line speed, but hasn’t really proven capable of being an every down back. With the current depth chart around him, he won’t get the chance to do so next year either.
But Chandler is still one of the most talented players on the team heading into 2020. Hopefully his usage against Indiana was a preview of what’s to come.
To me, Gray’s usage was strange in 2019. The four-star recruit came in and immediately looked like Tennessee’s most talented runner. He flashed against Georgia State and BYU, and then went into hiding. Part of it was getting Tim Jordan back from injury, and I’m sure another part of it was simply learning the offense.
But for whatever reason, Gray got 2-3 carries per game over the next several matchups. It took another injury to Jordan against Vanderbilt for him to get his next big chance, and he didn’t disappoint. 25 carries for 246 yards and three touchdowns later, Tennessee had a clear lead back on the depth chart. That momentum continued against Indiana as Gray ran for 86 yards, averaging over six yards per carry.
Gray’s 2020 outlook is simple — he’s the most talented ball-carrier that Tennessee has. There’s no reason he shouldn’t lead the team in attempts, while also getting involved in the passing attack.
Jordan’s start to 2019 was slow, thanks to an ankle injury. But when he returned, Jordan was the lead back against Mississippi State and Alabama. Of the three backs, Jordan might run with the most physicality. He had a nice game against Alabama, but everything else was fairly pedestrian.
Jordan ended with 428 yards, barely averaging over four yards per carry. That number is a distant third behind Chandler’s 4.9 and Gray’s 5.3.
Everyone is set to return next season, including senior Carlin Fils-aime, who redshirted last season. Four-star athlete Len’Neth Whitehead will get a shot at the position, while Tee Hodge and Jabari Small also join the party. Tennessee has a ton of depth and now they’ve got a few different flavors at the position.
Would it surprise anyone to see a transfer out of this group? Purely based on the numbers, it’s certainly something we could see. If not, Tennessee will roll into 2020 with three experienced runners entering year two under Jim Chaney. You can expect to see a rotation between the three, but I’m not sure how you don’t let Eric Gray get the majority after what we saw in the final two games.
Each back in this group got a huge boost when offensive guard Trey Smith announced his return. Senior center Brandon Kennedy got a waiver for his sixth season, all while Tennessee added former five-star recruit and 18 game starter Cade Mays via transfer.
Tennessee’s identity is clear. This group, along with the offensive line, should end up being the face of the team in 2020.