There is no secret how important the 2019 recruiting class is to Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers. In multiple interviews this season, Pruitt referenced needing to get his own guys into the program before they could compete at the level they wanted. While Pruitt and Company recruited far better than anticipated during their brief time with the Vols in the 2018 cycle, the combination of a 4-8 season and the handicaps resulting from an odyssey of a coaching search clearly hampered them. The 2019 class represents Jeremy Pruitt’s first class at Tennessee in which he and his staff have had a full year to assemble the players they want. Due to the talent of these players and the emphasis Pruitt has placed on wanting to get his own players into the program, expect to see the young men from this class on the field early and often. Here's an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. We continue our Player Profile series by looking at Memphis product Eric Gray.
December 20th of 2018 was the second day of the new Early Signing Period for college football. During the three-day window, players had the opportunity to sign their Letters of Intent to join the programs where they would continue their academic and athletic careers. The initial day of the Early Signing Period saw many elite prospects announce where they intended to play, put on the cap of their new school, and then sign their letters. Many of the biggest names on the national recruiting boards announced their decisions, and teams saw their 2019 recruiting classes as well as what their 2019 teams would be come into a much sharper focus. The second day of the Early Signing Period saw far fewer players announcing, and even fewer of the top players nationally. So, when the top all purpose back in the country, Lausanne Collegiate School running back Eric Gray, was set to announce his decision on the twentieth, it was an easy decision to head to Memphis early.
Scouts and fans of Tennessee High School football knew exactly what Gray was as a back, namely, one of the most decorated runners in the history of the state. Over four seasons, Gray ran for 8187 yards and 124 touchdowns. He was a multiple time winner of Tennessee’s Mr. Football Award, and a two-time State Champion. As a senior, Gray averaged over 10 yards per carry, a feat that followed up a junior campaign in which he ran for over 3000 yards in a single season. Gray ran for over 40 touchdowns in a single season twice and managed 38 scores as a sophomore. He averaged over 200 yards per game on the ground in his junior and senior seasons. When his career had concluded with the Lynx, Gray had left his name littered throughout the single season and career record books for high school runners in the Volunteer State. Gray not only put up gaudy numbers, he put them up consistently, with three seasons of over 2000 rushing yards in a row. Beyond what he brought to the table as a traditional runner, Gray was an excellent receiver at Lausanne, another dimension to his game that, along with his staggering production, had caught the eye of some of the biggest programs in the nation.
Gray had been a longtime commitment to the Michigan Wolverines, but he had withdrawn that commitment early in November. Coming into the Early Signing Period, Gray had been pursued by multiple programs, but the home state Volunteers had emerged as a favorite to land his services. Long one of the top targets in the class for Tennessee, Gray had been pursued hard by the Vols since announcing his split from Michigan. Vol coaches and players had been recruiting Gray, even fellow Memphian and current Volunteer offensive lineman Jerome Carvin was present at Gray’s signing ceremony.
What Gray was capable of on the field was something that anyone scouting running backs in the 2019 class could see clearly. His numbers, work ethic, and results spoke for themselves. However, while setting up equipment in the forty-five minutes before Eric made his announcement, I learned more about Eric Gray than film alone could tell. Gray is one of the most decorated football players in Tennessee high school history, but for the entire time up to the announcement I never heard Eric Gray the football player mentioned once. That was because everyone at Lausanne that day was too busy raving about Eric Gray the young man. Coaches, teachers, classmates, and school employees all had Eric stories, and each story highlighted the character of the young man. Lausanne head coach Kevin Locastro said to me, “I’ve been a football coach for a long time, and Eric is the best football player I have ever coached. He is an even better young man than a football player. He treats everyone he meets with respect and shows the same respect to the janitor that he shows me. He is a natural leader with an excellent work ethic.” Strangers came up to share similar stories and evaluations of this exceptional young man that just happened to be a gifted athlete as well.
When the time to choose his school came, Eric sat at a table with his father and position coach Eric Gray Sr., his mother, and his coach. He reached under the table to pull out a Tennessee cap that he had been hiding and announced his intent to come to Knoxville amidst raucous cheers. Clapping along with the rest of the crowd it occurred to me that Jeremy Pruitt had just landed another young man that could lead a team, was comfortable with it in fact, and was used to winning. He was also quite accustomed to being the catalyst that propelled his teams to victory. Gray possessed all the character intangibles that could be hoped for along with exceptional talent, and Pruitt had managed to get him out of Memphis, a feat that was not lost on Coach Locastro.
In Eric Gray, Tennessee is getting one of the most polished running backs available in the 2019 class. His game is exceptionally solid, a back that is good at everything with no real holes in his skills to speak of. Gray can run away from defenders with good straight-line speed, but he is still quicker than he is fast. Again, this is not a knock on his top end speed, and more of a gauge to how devastating his quickness and change of direction can be. Gray also shows comfort running downhill and powering his way between the tackles. He has surprising strength for his size and is adept at breaking tackles in short yardage situations as well as downfield to turn big gains into touchdowns. Gray shows a wide variety of tools to get through defenders as well, with a reliable spin move, a strong stiff arm, and the willingness to just drop a shoulder all showing up on his tape. The most frequent way Gray shakes off defenders, however, is by utilizing his quickness to change his body position to ensure defenders never hit him square. He always seems to present defenders only a glancing blow, then, pours on a burst of strength to run through an off balanced defender. His running style, body type, and aptitude as an excellent receiver out of that backfield recall another player that recently wore Tennessee Orange. Coming out of high school, the scouting report and game tape of Alvin Kamara and Eric Gray are eerily similar. While these are lofty expectations to place on a young man just getting used to college classes, the similarities are too strong to ignore on tape. Even Gray’s father can see it.
Gray Sr. is the running backs’ coach at Lausanne, and as he and I discussed his son’s style of play, the Kamara comparison came up. Grinning ear to ear and nodding his head, Gray Sr. said, “I see those similarities too, and like you said, not just because Kamara went to Tennessee. They are very similar. They do a lot the same in how they run and how they can both catch the ball.” The only question that consistently arises about Gray is regarding his size. At five foot ten and one hundred ninety pounds, Gray is not a big back. He has a frame that will allow him to add some muscle, but he will likely never be a big, bruising back that Jeremy Pruitt has seemed to prize since arriving in Knoxville, a frame like fellow Memphis running back Jeremy Banks. Still, Gray is no scat back. He ran downhill in a traditional, power running offense most of the time at Lausanne, serving as the workhorse for the offense. Despite all the carries and hits, he never seemed to fade or struggle. When it was suggested that part of this was due to his knack for avoiding big hits by defenders, the elder Gray smiled wide again. “We practice that. We made it a priority. Guys like Kamara, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Barry Sanders, you just never got that big hit on them. They always popped through their cuts, and they never let you get that knockout shot on them. That’s how come they got to play so long and were so good. We’ve worked on that with him.”
Eric Gray will arrive in Knoxville with much more polish than most running backs have after a few years in college. The largest concerns with him will revolve around his size, whether he can take the abuse, and how he can hold up as a blocker. The film and stats show that he can handle the role of a feature back, can endure the workload, and his intelligence and work ethic make it clear he will throw himself into developing as a pass protector. Gray walks into perhaps the most talented and deep room that Tennessee has on offense. Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Jeremy Banks all had meaningful carries for Tennessee last season, and each has shown the ability to take a game over when presented with the opportunity. For many backs, playing time and touches would be hard to come by in that room, and while they won’t come easy for Gray either, expect his ability as a receiver and explosive ability to ensure he sees touches in some capacity all season. Gray is one of the most highly touted players in the 2019 class for Tennessee for good reason. This is a young man to watch, with everything it takes to be special on and off the field in Knoxville.