Can you believe it? As of now, it looks like there may actually be a college football season in 2020.
So for now, we here at Rocky Top Talk are going to act like it’s all systems go. That means it’s time to start dishing out our summer previews!
One such preview will be this breakout player series. We are going to select a few Vols on the current roster who have the best shot at making a big name for themselves in 2020.
When it comes to a breakout season in 2020, the first player that likely comes to most fans’ minds is sophomore running back Eric Gray. He flashed some major skills and playmaking ability in 2019 and is certainly looking to take the next step this year.
Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started.
Eric Gray’s 2019 season
Final stat line: 101 carries, 539 yards, 5.34 ypc, 4 TDs
Even though Ty Chandler was considered the lead back in 2019, it was obvious that Gray will eventually lead the Vols’ backfield. He managed to finish 20th in the SEC in rushing yards, 11th in touchdowns, and 14th in yards per carry despite tying for the 24th-most carries in the conference. He even finished third in carries on his own team, yet he finished second on the team in rushing yards, first in yards per carry, and first in touchdowns.
And let’s not forget the fact that he was the MVP in Tennessee’s thrilling bowl win over the Indiana Hoosiers.
Gray doesn’t have Chandler’s breakaway speed, but he has enough speed to break off long runs and is a much more balanced runner. He also showed tremendous patience and vision last year, which can only bode well for the long-term.
He also got much, much better as the season wore on. According to Pro Football Reference, Gray logged 51 carries for 194 yards (3.8 ypc) and zero touchdowns through the months of August-October. But once November and January rolled around (the Vols obviously didn’t play during the month of December), Gray ran 50 times for 345 yards (6.9 ypc) and all four of his touchdowns.
Hopefully he can carry that momentum into the 2020 season. If he can, then there’s little doubt that he will become one of the best running backs in the SEC.
What needs to happen for Gray to take the next step in 2020?
The first —and obvious— answer is to become more of a factor in the passing game, but that will only change if the coaching staff is willing to throw the ball more to their running backs. Gray finished with 13 receptions on the year for 113 yards and one touchdown. All three marks led the running back room, but the 13 receptions were only good enough for the t-96th spot among running backs with 100+ carries in the country.
Even though he was decent in pass protection, running backs can always stand to get better in pass protection. Accomplishing that goal would also allow him to stay on the field more often, which may result in him becoming more involved in the passing game, as well.
He could also stand to get off to a quicker start, which will help whomever is behind center. As great as the stat line was for the months of November and January, he needs to hit the ground running (pun intended) if he wants to be the lead guy.
It’s really hard not to get excited about Gray in 2020. He reminds me a lot of recent LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. While he won’t dazzle anyone with speed, he has great contact balance, good vision, and he is a smart, elusive, tough runner who will grind out the extra yards.
Chandler showed concentration issues and fumble issues last year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he is the starter come Week 1, but he will likely be on a very short leash. Regardless, this coaching staff loves to run the ball, so Gray will get his chances early and often.
I expect Gray to be the starter - and the team’s leading rusher - by season’s end. And I also think he will finish inside the top-10 in the SEC when it comes to rushing yards.
What are your expectations for Eric Gray in 2020? Do you think he’ll have a breakout season? Let us know via the poll/comments below!
Will Eric Gray have a breakout season in 2020?
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