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December 6, 2011

Graham: Difficult decision to leave USC

Jay Graham is leaving South Carolina after three seasons as running backs coach.

The coach many people credit for luring Marcus Lattimore to Columbia has accepted a similar job at Tennessee, his alma mater.

"It was a very difficult decision to make," Graham told Gamecock Central early Tuesday afternoon. "I love those young men I've had here."

Graham oversaw the renaissance of the USC running game during his three years. Even when Lattimore was hurt, the ground game didn't miss a beat as freshman Brandon Wilds stepped in.

Graham, who is not expected to coach with USC in the Capital One bowl, is regarded as one of the top running backs in Tennessee history with 2,609 career rushing yards, seventh-best in school history, from 1993-96.

"I am thankful to Coach (Derek) Dooley for giving me the opportunity to return to Tennessee," Graham said in a press release issued by Tennessee early Tuesday afternoon. "Tennessee is a program with great football tradition and fan support, and I am honored to join the coaching staff for the Vols."

Because recruiting season is now in high gear, Graham will depart for Knoxville as early as possible.

He joins head coach Derek Dooley and a Tennessee staff under fire after the Vols went 5-7 in 2011 and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the third time since 2005.

"It has to happen pretty fast because it's recruiting season right now," Graham told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Tuesday. "I try to stay away from all the talk of getting UT back. I'm just going to get in there and work as hard as I possibly can."

Graham spent six seasons in the NFL, including four with the Baltimore Ravens (1997-2000) and single seasons with the Seattle Seahawks (2001) and Green Bay Packers (2002).

His NFL experience was considered vital in helping convince Lattimore to sign with the Gamecocks.

"Coach Graham did an excellent job here for the past three years," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday in a press release. "He told me that coaching at his alma mater is something he wanted to do. He's a very good coach and an outstanding person. We wish him the best in his coaching career."

Spurrier confirmed Graham will not be a part of USC's bowl preparations.

Graham served as a graduate assistant on the Vols staff in 2005 before taking a job on the UT-Chattanooga staff in 2006. He also spent single seasons at UT-Martin (2007) and Miami of Ohio (2008) before returning to the SEC as running backs for the Gamecocks.

Graham joined USC following the 2008 season and helped develop Kenny Miles into the most productive running back on the team in his first year.

But Graham impressed analysts around the country for the way he developed Lattimore into one of the top running backs in the country. Lattimore, who missed the last five games with a knee injury, should enter the 2012 season as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites.

As a result, USC's rushing attack has jumped from last in the SEC in 2009 to third this season with an average of 198.0 yard per game.

Whoever replaces Graham will have plenty of talent to work with. Besides Lattimore, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson return in 2011, while 2012 commitment Kendric Salley joins the program in the fall.

D. McCallum


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