Tennessee made another offer to Jay Graham.
The answer was the same as it was when he was a recruit.
Once a part of the rich tradition in the Vols’ backfield as a player, Graham is coming back to the program to try to restore some of the luster as an assistant, leaving South Carolina to return to his alma mater as the running backs coach in a move formally announced on Tuesday.
“I’m excited to get back to my old stomping grounds,” Graham said in a phone interview. “Tennessee has a lot of great football traditions, the fans and support there, that was one of the reasons I chose to be there as a player. Having that opportunity to come back as a coach is something that was a draw for me and also a special opportunity.
“This was something that I kind of always saw myself doing. Having the opportunity to do that is something that is really special to me.”
The chance to bring him back was apparently too appealing to resist for UT as well, and not just because of his ties to the program or the fact that his name is still listed seventh on the all-time rushing list.
Graham has proved himself on the sideline and as a recruiter during the last three seasons with the Gamecocks, earning a nomination for national assistant coach of the year in 2010, helping land prized tailback Marcus Lattimore and then working with him as he carried for more than 2,000 career yards and 27 touchdowns before his sophomore campaign was shortened by injury.
Even without Lattimore down the stretch this season, South Carolina still finished the year ranked third in the SEC with 198 yards per game — head and shoulders better than UT’s ground attack that wound up No. 116 in the country.
“I try to stay away from all the talk of getting UT back to itself,” Graham said. “I’m just going to get in there and work as hard as I possibly can.
“I saw some backs out there with some ability, and I’m going to kind of get in there and look around and see what we have back there first off. I’m just going to try to work as hard as possible to get our guys prepared to go play running back in the SEC.”
That process will start almost right away for Graham, who indicated he had some loose ends to tie up in South Carolina but wouldn’t be sticking around to coach in the bowl game with the Vols in the middle of a critical recruiting period.
The addition of Graham also gives UT a complete coaching staff once more after the retirement of Charlie Baggett last week, though there are unconfirmed reports that special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Eric Russell could be a target of new Washington State coach Mike Leach.
But either way, the Vols didn’t waste any time focusing their search on a replacement for Baggett or bringing him into the fold. And Graham was more than willing to rush back to the program to lend a hand again.
“Jay is not only one of the most accomplished running backs in Tennessee history, but he has also proven to be one of the top running backs coaches in the SEC,” UT coach Derek Dooley said in a release. “Jay understands what it means to be a Vol, and we are thrilled to have him on our staff.”