Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley has hired former Vol (1993-96) Jay Graham to oversee Big Orange running backs. Graham, who set a program record with eleven 100-yard rushing efforts in 1995, ranks seventh on the career list with 2,609 yards. He stands ninth in single-season rushing touchdowns (12 in '95) and in career rushing TDs (25).
"I'm really grateful to Coach Dooley for the opportunity to come back and coach at my alma mater," said Graham, who spent the 2011 season as running backs/tight ends coach at South Carolina. "With the tradition, the fans and all the things I experienced as a player, I'm excited to come back and be part of a good football staff."
Leaving a quality program at South Carolina is difficult but not that difficult.
"You've always got to look at what's best and where your heart is," Graham said. "I have a lot of love for Tennessee. I talked to my wife — it's always important to do that — got her feedback and got her blessing. She knows how I feel about Tennessee and the opportunity to come back."
Graham played for Vol squads that went 10-2 in 1993, 8-4 in '94, 11-1 in '95 and 10-2 in '96. He participated in three Florida Citrus Bowls and a Gator Bowl. All four teams he represented were nationally ranked, with the '95 squad finishing third.
"I have a lot of good memories at Tennessee, so it's hard to come up with one that's special off the top of my head," Graham told InsideTennessee by phone. "I remember all of the days we worked hard in the summer, being around my teammates and the significant victories. Beating Alabama in '95 for first time in a while is a great memory. The most important, though, was the time I spent with my teammates. I got to play with some really good guys."
Known as an excellent recruiter, Graham's prized recruit during his three-year stint with the Gamecocks was superstar running back Marcus Lattimore, who was tabbed National Freshman of the Year in 2010.
The key to being an effective recruiter, Graham believes, is simple.
"You have to understand what the kid wants and which people around him are going to help make the decision — the parents, the coach or whoever — and develop those relationships," he said. "Sometimes it takes time. You find out those factors, then you get them on campus, get them around the coaches, the academic advisors and such that are part of the program."
Graham's respect and affection for Tennessee should help considerably in recruiting prospects to his alma mater.
"I think my background will help me when I'm on the couch talking about a program that I'm a product of," he conceded. "That gives the parents and prospect a comfort level with you. It's not as hard of a sell. Being a former player there really helps."
In addition to being recognized for his recruiting prowess, Graham is regarded as a quality running backs coach.
"I try to really have a good relationship with my players; that's where the trust starts," he said. "I'm aggressive, making sure things are done the right way. I've got a lot of energy on the field, and I'm very organized and disciplined in the way I do things.
"I try to coach the young man in what he's good at. Running backs come in all sizes, and I try to figure out what they do best. You can't coach everybody the same way because they're all different."
Asked what makes a good running back, Graham answered without hesitation.
"The ability to break tackles is important, especially in this (Southeastern) conference," he said. "Blocking and route-running also are important but vision, explosiveness and the ability to break tackles are very important. Consistency is important, too, because that's the difference between a good back and a great back."
Graham gave this interview by cell phone while he and his wife were scrambling to get their children into the family car.
"We have four kids — one short of a basketball team," he quipped. "My kids are 8, 6, 4 and 1, so it's like my wife and me against a full-court press."