Top 10 running backs

Endeavoring to name the top 10 running backs in UT history isn't an easy process as the Vols have been blessed with an abundance of big-time backs, especially over the last two decades when Wide Receiver U was transformed to Running Back U.

Over the last 20 years, the Vols have exhibited perhaps the greatest collection of running backs in team history i.e. Johnny Jones, Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb, Charlie Garner, Aaron Hayden, James Stewart, Jay Graham, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens.

Two things are apparent from seeing this list of names. First of all, three of these players -- Garner, Stewart and Lewis -- are starters in the NFL with Oakland, Detroit and Baltimore, respectively. Graham and Hayden and Cobb have also enjoyed productive professional careers and only a series of knee injuries prevented Webb from becoming a league stalwart.

Then there's Travis Henry, who became the Vols all-time rushing leader in 2000 and the first Vol back to go over 3,000 yards in a career. With Lewis expected to be back at full speed in 1999 and with another year of eligibility remaining, it looked like Henry might never get a chance to prove himself. However Lewis suffered through an unspectacular junior season and struggled with injuries that kept him sidelined for most of five games. Henry stepped in admirably and when Lewis elected for early entry into the NFL Draft, The Cheese turned in a super senior season in which he went over 1,300 yards and became the greatest ground gainer in Tennessee history.

But was Henry's last season enough to jump over Lewis in our Top 10 list? A lot of Vol fans would undoubtedly say "yes" in light of Henry's popularity and Lewis' defection. But also remember than Lewis gained 2,677 yards in his college career which is just 203 yards shy of Stewart1s mark, a little over 400 yards behind Henry's record, and Lewis did it while basically playing two full seasons.

That1s why we're addressing this topic and we invite our readers to agree or disagree with this top 10 list that will feature a bonus No. 11 choice.

Through the decades they have blazed a orange trail across Shield-Watkins Field and into the collective memory of Volunteer football fans. Whether by power and strength or speed and grace they1ve mesmerized the gridiron faithful with their ability to shed tacklers and take the pigskin to pay dirt.

When we're talking great Tennessee running backs we can go back a long way, to the single-wing days of Robert R. Neyland and such legends as George Cafego, Johnny Butler, Gene McEver, Beattie Feathers, Andy Kozar and Hank Lauricella. Then there such post-Neyland greats as Johnny Majors, Mallon Faircloth and George Canal. After the single-wing was finally scrapped, the T-formation ushered in such power running greats as Richard Pickens, Curt Watson and Haskel Stanback.

But who is the greatest?

For purposes of this story we've chosen to concentrate only on the players who followed the single-wing era of running backs, because the responsibilities of a tailback were much the same as today's quarterback in the single wing. Also, most of those backs we only know from grainy film of a bygone era which makes it nearly impossible to make a substantive evaluation. What follows is our picks for the top 10 runners in UT history with a summary of their accomplishments and why we picked them where we did.

Top 10 Tennessee Tailbacks

No. 1 (The Cheese stands alone) Travis Henry: The Frostproof, Fla., standout saved his best for last as he racked up over 400 yards in his final two regular season games to break James Stewart's career record and become the first Vol to eclipse the 3,000-yard rushing mark in a career. Henry also set a record for the most carries by a Vol (556) breaking the mark previously held by Jay Graham and also set a UT record for the most 100-yard games in a career with 14. The Cheese has a basic power running style that punishes tacklers and wears down defenses. Ultimately, it's his durability that lifted him past Lewis on this list . During his final three seasons, Henry never missed a game because of injury and he had the remarkable capacity to get stronger as the contest went along. His 197-yard rushing performance and game-winning touchdown in the final minute against Arkansas in 1998 saved Tennessee's perfect season and the national title. He finished that season with 980 yards despite only starting three games. He again came to the rescue in 1999 when Lewis was hobbled with an ankle injury and enabled Tennessee to finish strong after an upset against Arkansas that derailed the Vols national title defense. Perhaps the most consistent back in Tennessee history, Henry is often overlooked for his amazing physical skills. Not only does the he have tremendous strength (450-pound bench press) but he also has impressive speed (4.55) and superb athletic ability (42-inch vertical leap). Henry1s jumping ability is handy around the goal line and in short yardage situations, but it can also be dangerous to his health since he has no control once he goes airborne and his hang time is incredible. In his final regular season against Vanderbilt, Henry soared more than five yards in the air coming down just short of the goal line. Look for The Cheese to enjoy a highly productive season with an improved Buffalo Bills team this season.

No. 2  (Man or Superman): Jamal Lewis. Though Lewis barely played two full seasons, he rates high on this list for his unequaled combination of speed, size and strength. Lewis reached the 2,000-yard mark for career rushing faster than any player in team history and would have easily shattered Stewart1s career rushing mark at UT if he had elected to come back for his senior season. Lewis went over 200 yards twice in games with a personal high of 232 against Georgia in 1997. During his freshman year, Lewis may have enjoyed the best season ever for a Tennessee back considering that he didn't become a starter until the fourth game. In that 1997 campaign, he finished with 1,364 yards in 232 carries for an average of 5.9 yards per carry. During four games of his sophomore season, before going down with a knee injury, he had 497 yards in just 73 carries for an average of 6.8 yards per carry. He completed his college career with 487 carries for 2,677 yards, 17 touchdowns and  5.5 yards per carry. Confirmation of Lewis1 incredible talent came in the spring of 2000 during the NFL combines when he dazzled pro scouts with his 4.4 speed, 700-pound plus squat and 450-pound bench press. Even by NFL standards, he was considered to be a freak of nature. He was the fifth player taken in the NFL Draft that year and he's enjoyed a remarkable rookie season for the Ravens. In addition to having great speed and power, Lewis can also be elusive and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He came under a lot of criticism during 1999 for not running hard and speculation had it that he was looking ahead to a pro career. It's impossible to dispute such claims, but something should be pointed out in Lewis' defense. Despite a separated shoulder, he carried the Vols offense against Florida in Gainesville in '99, only to later suffer an ankle sprain later in the year that sidelined him. Tennessee fans might also recall that as a sophomore after completely tearing a knee ligament that would eventually require a cadaver replacement, he came back into the game against Auburn and ran the ball for a 23-yard gain. We took all of these factors into consideration but couldn't get past the fact his career started with a bang and finished with a whimper.

No. 3 (with an explanation): Chuck Webb. We know he only had one full season (1989) as a starter, but what a season it was and Webb may well be the best pure running back to ever wear the Big Orange. He still has the two greatest single-game performances in school history with 294 yards against Mississippi and 250 against Arkansas in the 1990 Cotton Bowl. Webb1s open field moves were sheer artistry and he had the power to rip thro


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