Singling out Tennessee's best running backs coach of the past three decades is considerably more difficult because so many critical factors have to be weighed: How much of a running back's success was due to God-given talent, rather than coaching? How much was due to great blocking? How much was due to avoiding injuries? How much was due to a superior passing attack that kept defenses honest?
Simply put, choosing the best running back coaches is wildly subjective and mostly guesswork. That didn't stop me from trying, however.
Here's a recap of Vol running back coaches over the past 30 years, followed by my picks as the top three:
Doug Mathews (1980-88) got 500-600 yards per season from James Berry and Chuck Coleman in '80, '81 and '82, then helped Johnnie Jones post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in '83 (1,116 yards) and 1984 (1,290 yards). With first-teamer Keith Davis limited by injuries to 684 yards in '85, Mathews developed walk-on Jeff Powell into a Sugar Bowl hero with a 60-yard touchdown run in Tennessee's 35-7 beat-down of heavily favored Miami. Fullback William Howard led the Vols with 787 yards in '86. Reggie Cobb was spectacular as a redshirt freshman in '87, rushing for 1,197 yards and a school-record 17 touchdowns, but limited by injuries to 547 yards in '88. Mathews probably did more with less than any UT running backs coach of the past 30 years.
David Cutcliffe (1989) in his lone season overseeing the running backs was fortunate to coach the guy I consider to be the most gifted back in program history, Chuck Webb. Webb averaged 5.9 yards per carry en route to 1,236 yards as a redshirt freshman that fall, setting a single-game record of 294 yards versus Ole Miss that likely will never be broken.
Tommy West (1990) got an awful break when Webb suffered essentially a career-ending ACL tear in Game 2 of the '90 season. To his credit, West helped undersized backup Tony Thompson post Webb-type numbers (5.8 yards per carry, 1,261 yards, 16 touchdowns) after assuming the starting job.
Charlie Coe (1991-92) coached Little Man Stewart and Aaron Hayden for two years each, junior college transfer Charlie Garner for one. Stewart gained 939 yards in '91 and Garner ran for 928 (with a 6.0 per-carry average) in '92.
Randy Sanders (1993-98) had the incredible fortune to oversee an awesome array of rushers. He helped Garner average a school-record 7.3 yards per carry en route to 1,161 yards in 1993. Stewart (1,028) and Hayden (819) combined for 1,847 yards in '94. Jay Graham ran for 1,438 yards in '95 and 797 in '96, then gave way to Jamal Lewis (1,364 as a freshman in '97) and Travis Henry (970 as a sophomore in '98). Garner went on to play 15 years in the NFL, Lewis 10, Stewart nine, Henry eight, Hayden six and Graham four. Was Sanders a great running backs coach or was he blessed to coach great running backs?
Woody McCorvey (1999-2003) coached Jamal Lewis as a senior, when he ran for 816 yards coming off a major ACL injury. McCorvey helped Travis Henry run for 1,314 yards in 2000, then helped Travis Stephens rush for a school-record 1,464 yards in 2001. McCorvey's final season saw him guide sophomore Cedric Houston to a 779-yard performance.
Trooper Taylor (2004-05) in his first year as running backs coach produced two 1,000-yard rushers — Gerald Riggs (1,107) and Houston (1,005). When Riggs broke an ankle midway through the '05 season, Taylor helped redshirt freshman Arian Foster amass 879 yards in spite of just five starts. Foster has gone on to become an all-pro in the NFL. Houston lasted two seasons in The League; Riggs plays in the Canadian Football League.
Kurt Roper (2006-07) saw Foster limited by injuries to four starts and 322 yards in '06 but speedy LaMarcus Coker picked up some of the slack with 696 rushing yards. Roper helped a healthy Foster bounce back in '07 with 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Stan Drayton (2008) rotated Foster, Lennon Creer and Montario Hardesty in the infamous "Clawfense" of '08. Foster led the team with 570 yards in what could only be described as an offensive train wreck.
Eddie Gran (2009) worked wonders with Hardesty, developing the injury-prone career backup into a 1,345-yard rusher and a second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Gran was only around for one year but his work with Hardesty was most impressive.
Jay Graham (2012) proved to be a godsend in his first year overseeing the runners. He helped fumble-prone Rajion Neal overcome that shortcoming en route to a team-best 708 rushing yards last fall and also helped Marlin Lane become more of a downhill runner on his way to 658 yards and a 5.5 per-carry average.
My picks for the top three running back coaches of the past 30 years:
1. Eddie Gran
2. Trooper Taylor
3. Jay Graham, Woody McCorvey and Doug Mathews (3-way tie)