KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's football program began the week with a surprise.
Running backs coach Jay Graham, a tailback for the Volunteers in the 1990s, is leaving his alma mater for a Florida State position after a little more than one season in Knoxville.
New Vols coach Butch Jones confirmed the initial report by Warchant.com, the Rivals network's Florida State affiliate, via Twitter late Monday morning.
"Jay Graham has informed us of big decision to accept a position at another institution," Jones tweeted. "The process of adding a new coach to our staff is under way, and we will hire the best person possible as we continue to build our program."
Jones may move quickly on a replacement with Tennessee starting spring practice in 11 days.
Florida State, which has had to replace seven departed assistant coaches this offseason, has yet to announce Graham's hiring or his title, but the move surely includes a higher salary and likely more responsibility. Randy Sanders, a former Tennessee offensive coordinator who coached Graham in Knoxville, is listed as Florida State's running backs coach.
Sal Sunseri, the defensive coordinator for Tennessee's program-worst defense in 2012, was hired as Florida State's defensive ends coach in December.
The lone holdover from Derek Dooley's staff, Graham had the second-lowest salary on Jones' staff at $260,000, and he'll owe Tennessee 33 percent of his salary for the termination of his contract. The 37-year-old North Carolina native joined Dooley's staff in December 2011 after three seasons at South Carolina. He made $225,000 in 2012.
"I don't feel entitled to be here just because I played here," Graham said in December. "That's not the way it works. It's business in the SEC. ... I was just trying to do my job and do as much as possible to ensure that I could be here, and hopefully Coach Jones thought I was a good enough coach to be here."
After Tennessee finished 2011 with the SEC's worst rushing game, the Vols improved dramatically under Graham in 2012. Rajion Neal was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before hurting his ankle. Marlin Lane averaged 78 yards per game during the season's second half.
Though unable to land any of his elite targeted tailback prospects, Graham was a very valuable part of Tennessee's coaching transition and its completion of the 2013 recruiting class. With ties to the Carolinas and the Nashville area, he landed MarQuez North, a four-star receiver from Charlotte, and was key in bridging the gap between the two staffs. Graham was named one of 247sports' top 50 recruiters for the 2013 class.
Graham received standing ovations from Vols fans during at least one of three recruiting celebrations across Tennessee the day after signing day earlier this month.
"There was a process, and I don't believe in saying kept on or retained," Jones told the Times Free Press during an interview two weeks after his hiring in December. "I rehired him. It took all of about five minutes in our interview to know that this is a guy that has impeccable character, he has an affinity for the University of Tennessee, he can walk into a young man's house and walk the walk and talk the talk because he's played it and he's lived it.
"Really those two weeks, I probably spent the most time on the road [recruiting] with him than anyone else. We're very fortunate to have him as part of our staff, and he's going to be an integral part of our staff moving forward. I've relied on him for a lot of things, and he's come through."
Despite his familiarity with Tennessee and the SEC, Graham previously had no connection to Jones, which was a distinction from many of his fellow assistant coaches.
With only one black (linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen) currently on staff, it's probable Jones will make a minority hire. Former Tennessee and Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor's name was mentioned Monday in some speculation about the opening. Roy Manning, a former Michigan tailback, was Jones' running backs coach at Cincinnati last season.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...