What a game, what a season!

Marvin Westwestwords

Great game by the freshman running back on Senior Day. Speed kills. Blockers help.

Defensive Volunteers fought fiercely and had minimum breakdowns.

Order has been restored in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt relationship, a fitting finish to a terrific turnaround, one to remember, maybe for the ages.

This was a crazy, entertaining season, unpredictable and weird, too. From 1-4 to 7-5, it was rags to medium riches with strong stories on the side.

The Vols, possibly off the launch pad toward better years, were gritty most every week. OK, sometimes they fell over their own feet. Other times they were special.

When there was little or no place to run, throwing the football became a very good idea. Finally, on a cold, wet, boisterous evening, young Eric Gray found plenty of running room and ran right into the Tennessee record book.

He broke Jamal Lewis’ rookie record with 246 yards and three touchdowns. Gray’s yardage was fifth highest in school history. His 94-yard touchdown run was second longest all-time. Kelsey Finch ran 99 against Florida in 1977.

What a game – awful beginning, rapid recovery, knockout punches in the second quarter, never any question which team would win.

What a season – shocking at the start, surprising in the second half, impressive five-game winning streak.

The ups, downs and ups of Jarrett Guarantano was a tale for the ages. Some quarterbacks are sensitive creatures. Most are intelligent. Many are complex. Only a few were linebackers at heart, playing out of position. Swamp Rat was one.

Guarantano is no linebacker but he turned out to be as tough mentally as he is physically. He is limited as a runner and has not made quick enough decisions but he did not fall apart when his world collapsed around him.

This was the best set of receivers since the Peyton Manning era. I’ve said it before: Jauan Jennings is a gladiator, really rugged, almost out of control. Josh Palmer is an acrobatic artist. Marquez Callaway can play in the big time. Butch Jones did something right.

There is a place in my heart and my next book for the goal-line stand at Kentucky. Daniel Bituli is part of what Al Wilson used to be. Henry To’o To’o seems destined for greatness.

That Trey Smith played the entire season means his blood clots have subsided or were brilliantly managed. Good doctors are gifts from God. Next question is whether Trey stays or goes pro.

I cannot explain why these Volunteers were not ready when the season started. There has been speculation that August practices were too cautious for fear of injuries. Nobody inside the Tennessee walls will say the team didn’t bother preparing for Georgia State. If precious hours were actually spent on Florida, they were wasted.

Georgia did not intimidate Tennessee. Tennessee stopped Mississippi State’s highly regarded running attack. Tennessee came close to making it close against Alabama.

After that, Tennessee won all the games that could have gone either way. That’s what most will remember. Some were too close for comfort. Each became a piece in the progress puzzle.

Ah yes, progress. I do believe ugly losing streaks to Vanderbilt are a thing of the past. I do not believe even a good recruiting roundup will be enough to catch Georgia, Florida or Alabama. Maybe later.

As for Eric Gray, we thought he was a prize long before he arrived. He played at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, set the state record for career touchdowns with 138 and was the first to be named Tennessee’s Mr. Football three times. He had sensational statistics.

He thought he was going to Michigan. He committed but something happened. He never went back.

Eric could have gone anywhere. He had scholarship offers from Alabama, Penn State, LSU, Florida, Stanford, Texas A&M and South Carolina – plus a dozen or so others.

Lausanne School wants you to know it does not major in athletics. It prepares young people for college and real life. It promotes terms like “global environment” and supposedly has students from 55 countries. Eric had a 3.5 grade point average.

Somebody else helped him become who he is. He found time to help others. He served as a math tutor for middle school students. He raised money for Touchdowns Against Cancer on behalf of St. Jude’s Hospital.

What he did against Vanderbilt impressed Jeremy Pruitt.

“You think about a record at the University of Tennessee. Think about all the good runners that have come through here. That says a whole heck of a lot about everyone involved.”

Gray, asked what he thought about Gray, had something else to say.

“First, I want to say all glory to God. It’s all glory to Him.”

After that, he recognized the offensive line. He said the coaches are a blessing. He said, because it was going to be a rainy day, he knew he would get an opportunity. The running game was prominent in the plan and preparation.

It all turned out a bit better than expected. Vanderbilt’s anchor didn’t have a chance of holding.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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