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December 6, 2011In the end, there simply were far too many fond memories --- and the belief of more to come --- for Jay Graham to pass up.
So on Tuesday, Graham agreed to return to his alma mater as the running backs coach for second-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. Graham spent the previous three years on Steve Spurrier's South Carolina coaching staff, where he helped recruit and tutor Marcus Lattimore, who was on pace for a potential Heisman Trophy campaign season this year before an injury derailed his sophomore season.
"It's a great opportunity, and I really would like to thank Coach Dooley for giving me the chance to come back," said Graham, the Vols' No. 7 career rusher with 2,609 yards. "There's a lot of football tradition there and a lot of great fan support. I remember my playing days there, and when the opportunity came along, it was good to be in a position to get back."
Dooley, in a statement, indicated bringing back Graham was an easy choice. Graham, who got a multi-year deal, becomes the Vols' first full-time running backs coach since Eddie Gran left almost exactly two years ago following a less-than-one-year stay on Lane Kiffin's UT staff.
"Jay is not only one of the most accomplished running backs in Tennessee history," Dooley said, "but he has also proven to be one of the top running backs coaches in the SEC. Jay understands what it means to be a Vol, and we are thrilled to have him on our staff."
Graham, whose 1995 season in which he rushed for 1,438 yards and helped Tennessee to a top-five national finish is among the school's most productive ever, said he will take the same hard-nosed approach in coaching the Vols as he did when wearing the orange and white from '93-96. Graham's 11 100-yard games during the '95 season are a UT single-season record, and he left with 14 100-yard games --- second-most in Vols history.
"That's the thing, I have to get there first but we've got to work hard. The way I played, I always tried to run hard and in this conference, you've got to run hard because you've got probably four of the top five defenses in the country.
"As a running back, you're going to get hit, and knowing how to break tackles and do those things is what I like to teach. It's pretty much how I coach in a nutshell."
Indeed, Graham said he will take a hard-line, straightforward style with his charges in all aspects of being a college football player.
"I'm not going to be their best friend, but I'm always going to be there for them and make sure they can trust me," Graham told VolQuest.com. "I'm always going to be upfront and honest in the way we do things. I believe in supporting each other and being there for each other and that kind of environment. We're going to establish an identity of being physical in all we do, whether it's pass protection or running the ball, being very physical and technically sound. I like to teach guys to play the game the way it's supposed to be played and I think those same principles apply in life. What they do in the classroom, weight room and off the field is very important to me."
Calling it a family decision and praising his wife, Kelly, for her support, Graham said it was a big decision for his family of six to return home to Knoxville.
"You have to think about all the things, pros and cons, to doing all different things. Having played there and I love Tennessee and what it has done for me and the type of man it has helped me become," Graham said. "I'm a part of a family of six, and my wife has been here the whole time and supported me and supported this family the whole time. So it was very important that I talk with her about this and that we make the decision.
"It didn't take too terribly long (to decide), because you just don't have much time when you're going through this process."
A former coveted prospect coming out of Concord, N.C., Graham set numerous UT records before a six-year NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.
All those experiences, Graham explained, as well as his relative youth --- he's just 36 --- can help Graham relate to current and future players about what it takes to be successful in the SEC and beyond.
"I think it helps me, just because I remember going through it as a player not too long ago. Recruiting has changed since I've come through with all the Internet and media and all that stuff that you have along with that. It's changed a lot. But being in this conference, it's big-time recruiting, probably four teams or five in the SEC that will finish in the top 10 or 12 in recruiting. Always important to stay on top of it. There's always going to be recruiting battles up to signing day," Graham said. "Having had the experience of playing in the SEC, I think it is important so I can relate with players and also their parents, just because they know that I've been through it and not a long time ago. That's the good thing about being fairly young, though I don't feel so young some days. I think it's the same thing that helps me coach these young men.
"I'm not going to be their best friend, but I'm always going to be there for them and make sure they can trust me. I'm always going to be upfront and honest in the way we do things. I believe in supporting each other and being there for each other and that kind of environment. We're going to establish an identity of being physical in all we do, whether it's pass protection or running the ball, being very physical and technically sound. I like to teach guys to play the game the way it's supposed to be played and I think those same principles apply in life. What they do in the classroom, weight room and off the field is very important to me."