Best of Fulmer era - RBs

Best of Fulmer era - RBs

Few tasks are more complex than comparing running backs. It's almost an apples-and-oranges proposition.

Some guys get to run behind great offensive lines. Others get most of their yards on their own. Some guys benefit from having a complementary passing attack. Others are marked men who find every opposing defense massed to stop them. Some guys enjoy remarkable health. Others play through an assortment of injuries.

Some guys can run inside or outside, catch passes and block. Others are strictly featured backs with one clearcut strength. Some guys get most of their yards by popping an occasional big play. Others consistently deliver four or five yards per carry. Some guys make SportsCenter with spectacular plays. Others make the chains move with a minimum of fanfare.

Having made my excuses upfront, I will now undertake to rank the starting running backs during the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present) of Tennessee football:

1. Jamal Lewis (1997-99): Blending 230 pounds of muscle with 4.4 speed, he was a genetic freak in the Herschel Walker/Bo Jackson mold. After averaging 5.9 yards per carry as a freshman and 6.8 the first four games of his sophomore year, however, he tore an ACL. Lewis averaged a pedestrian 4.5 yards per carry as a junior, then jumped to the NFL. He ranks fourth on UT's all-time rushing list (2,677 yards), despite playing just 2½ seasons. Like predecessor Chuck Webb, he might've won a Heisman if he'd stayed in school and stayed injury-free.

2. Travis Henry (1999-2000): "The Cheese" is UT's career rushing leader (3,078 yards), in spite of a wasted freshman year which saw him carry a mere two times for 4 yards. His best year was '99, when he averaged 6.3 yards per carry while splitting time with the afore-mentioned Lewis. With Lewis gone, Henry doubled his carries from 125 as a junior to 253 as a senior and rushed for 1,314 yards, a school record at the time. He wasn't much of a receiver but he could do everything else.

3. Charlie Garner (1992-93): Coming to Tennessee from junior college, this little guy made a big impact – rushing for 2,089 yards in his two years as the starter. He averaged a mind-boggling 7.3 yards per carry as a senior, a mark topped just once in the program's recorded history (Hank Lauricella at 7.9 ypc in 1951). Garner wasn't much help as a blocker but he was an outstanding featured back.

4. James Stewart (1991, 1994): "Little Man" wasn't flashy but he proved terribly productive, despite sandwiching his two years as a starter around two years as Garner's chief backup. Stewart ranks No. 1 on UT's all-time list for rushing touchdowns (35) and No. 2 for rushing yards (2,890).

5. Jay Graham (1995-96): A poor man's Jamal Lewis, Graham combined excellent size and superior speed into a dynamic package. An option tailback in high school, he was not a particularly instinctive runner, but give him a crease and he was gone. Best of all, Jay saved his finest outings for Alabama, recording the two longest runs of his career (79 yards in 1996 and 75 yards in '95) vs. the Tide. He stands sixth on UT's all-time list with 2,609 career yards.

6. Travis Stephens (2001): After four years (including a redshirt season in '99) spent waiting for Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry to leave, this 5-9, 190-pound scatback finally got his shot in '01 and made the most of it. He rushed for 1,464 yards, a school record that still stands, and was a finalist for the Doak Walker award as the NCAA's premier running back.

7. Cedric Houston (2002-04): A three-year starter blessed with good speed and good power, Houston rarely exhibited the instincts and vision needed to make the step from good back to great back. He was a very functional college tailback, however, who ranks fifth on UT's all-time rushing list with 2,634 career yards.

8. Gerald Riggs (2004-05): Few players in program history have arrived with so much hype and done so little to justify it. After two years as an underachieving disciplinary problem, he matured as a junior and rushed for a team-high 1,107 yards while splitting time with Houston. Riggs suffered a season-ending leg injury midway through his senior year of '05.

NOT RATED: Arian Foster (2006-present). There is one chapter still to write before the book on him is finished.

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