Graham sees potential in young running backs

Carolina used the Signing Day press conference as a chance to introduce the six new members of the Gamecocks' coaching staff. That includes new running backs coach Jay Graham. Graham is Steve Spurrier's third running backs coach at Carolina, and returns to the SEC, where he starred collegiately at Tennessee. He spoke about returning to the SEC and trying to improve a struggling rushing attack.

A native of Concord, NC, Graham played for the Volunteers from 1993-1996. He finished his career as Tennessee's sixth leading rusher and second in career carries. He went on to a six year NFL career with Baltimore, Seattle, and Green Bay, and played one year for Montreal in the CFL before returning to college to complete his degree and enter coaching.

In a press release, Spurrier described Graham as a rising star in the coaching ranks.

"We think Jay is an outstanding young coach," he said in the release. "He is just getting started in his coaching career, but he has impressed us in the interview process. He has played at a high level and knows what college running backs are going through."

Graham has certainly been a man on the move since he entered coaching. He worked at Tennessee as a graduate assistant in 2005, and then served as running backs coach at Chattanooga in 2006. Graham was named running backs coach and co-special teams coordinator at San Diego in 2007, but lasted only a few months, returning to the state of Tennessee as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennessee-Martin in 2007, and then running backs coach at Miami of Ohio last season. The Miami coaching staff was fired after last season, but Graham was retained by the new staff. However, he decided a chance to return to the south was too good a chance to pass up.

Graham follows Madre Hill, who was let go after one season in Columbia, and Robert Gillespie, who left this offseason for a similar position at Oklahoma State. All three coaches were fairly young when hired by Spurrier. Graham is the oldest, at 33, but is still young by coaching standards. All three were also star running backs in the SEC (Hill at Arkansas and Gillespie under Spurrier at Florida). Spurrier and Graham hope that recent playing experience will help get the players' attention.

"I think they understand and kind of identify with me because I've been in the SEC, I've played in the SEC before and I understand what it's about," Graham said. "But the most important thing is I have to teach those young men to do the things that you're supposed to do on game day."

Graham has a tough road ahead of him. South Carolina has struggled to run the ball under Spurrier and reached the bottom last season. The Gamecocks averaged just 94.1 rushing yards per game, worst in the SEC and among the worst in the nation. Making the road even tougher, Carolina's leading rusher, Mike Davis, graduated. However, Graham is not focusing on the negatives.

"The thing that I looked at, when I was watching those backs, I was looking at ‘What can we do at the tailback position?" he said. "What can we do, not what happened or what went wrong, what can we do to make it better?"

Hopefully making things better will be a group of young, talented, but unproven running backs. Brian Maddox and Eric Baker showed potential last year, but have yet to prove they can be an every down back. They will be pushed by Kenny Miles, who redshirted last season, and 2009 signees Jarvis Giles and Ben Axon. Graham raved about the two signees.

"Jarvis Giles, he's about as good as you can get," Graham said of the 5'11", 176 pound runner. "He's very explosive, great in the open field, can catch. He's on campus already, which is going to help us to get that extra spring. I've been very excited about him. He's been five minutes early everywhere. He's a very competitive young man. He has a tremendous upside."

Axon is bigger than Giles at 6'1", 195 pounds. Axon has drawn comparisons to former Gamecock Cory Boyd, who had similar size.

"Ben Axon I've talked to him on the phone several times," Graham said. "Every time I've talked to him he's either coming back from a workout or going to one. I'm very excited about the things that are coming out of his mouth. It's one thing to talk about it, but the words that he's saying about how committed he is to getting on the field early, those are the things that excite people."

It would make Graham's job easier if he came to Columbia knowing he had a proven feature back, instead of five unknowns. However, the young talent benefits him in another way. Nobody is so established in one line of thinking that he would be resistant to Graham's coaching, and all are unproven so open competition should be welcomed.

"The best thing about coming into this situation is they're young guys," Graham said. "That competitive situation is there. We're going to put them in a situation and see what happens."

Graham has a lot of work in front of him if he wants to improve the rushing attack. He will get help from Eric Wolford, the new offensive line coach and running game coordinator, but Graham is focused only on the running backs. Asked what has to change most to improve the running game, Graham put the onus entirely on the ball carriers.

"In the SEC, running backs have to be able to break tackles," he said. "When that safety's down in the box, you've got to be able to beat him. The offensive line can get you five yards, but you have to be able to go get 10 or 12 yards after that. The most important thing we have to work on is breaking tackles. We can't have negative runs. We can't have one yard gains."

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