NFL Draft player spotlight: Running back Eric Gray – From Knoxville to Norman

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 15: Running back Eric Gray #0 of the Oklahoma Sooners sprints around safety Marvin Grant #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks for 25 yards before getting caught at the seven yard line in the first quarter at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 15, 2022 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 52-42. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 15: Running back Eric Gray #0 of the Oklahoma Sooners sprints around safety Marvin Grant #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks for 25 yards before getting caught at the seven yard line in the first quarter at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 15, 2022 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma won 52-42. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

Expert’s note: This is part of a continuing series of articles looking at former Sooner players who are 2023 NFL Draft prospects.

Sooner running back Eric Gray arrived in Norman as a transfer from the University of Tennessee before the 2021 college football season. Although Gray only spent two seasons at OU, he significantly impacted the Sooners football program.

During major program transitions, the likes of which no other college football program has ever experienced, Gray served as a consistent anchor for the Venables coaching staff and all the remaining players. Gray’s athleticism, consistency, and leadership will help him well come the NFL Draft on April 27.

Gray is a 5-foot-10-inch, 210-pound running back from Memphis, Tennessee (Lausanne Collegiate School). In high school, Gray was a composite 4-star recruit ranked as the 99th overall player in the nation, according to 247Sports.

Gray began his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee, where he played for two seasons and accumulated 1,311 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns. According to, Gray received Freshman All-American Honorable Mention at Tennessee and was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

Following the 2020 season, Gray transferred to Oklahoma. While in Norman, Gray rushed for 1,778 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also had 56 receptions for 458 yards and 2 scores. Gray was selected to the All Big-12 first team following the 2022 season. Gray was a consistent production source throughout his career in Norman, especially in 2022, when the Sooner offense had frequent inconsistent performances.

Film Study: The first thing you’ll notice when you watch Gray’s film is his power. Although he isn’t typically considered a traditional ‘power back,’ he does display an above-average level of strength when he engages defenders. Gray has a powerful base and plays with an excellent center of gravity.

He is frequently seen making decisive cuts at the line of scrimmage and breaking arm tackles. His north-south style will provide him success in the NFL, where the speed differential is much closer than in college. Gray’s running style is similar to a rookie version of the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott. Gray takes the handoff from the quarterback and operates in a patient mode until a hole opens in the line. When he sees daylight, he displays explosiveness and quickly breaks through the line of scrimmage, getting to the second level.

When Gray faces second-level defenders, he once again relies on his strength to break tackles at the second level. Gray has shown average straight-line speed but an above-average level of explosiveness. Defensive backs can gain on him from behind pretty quickly; his strength, however, allows him to break away from these defenders with consistent success.

Gray’s second trait that leads to his success in the running game is his balance. Rarely was Gray ever taken down by a single defender. The explosive burst he uses to break through the line often results in him getting hit at the line and slowing down his progression. This is typically a vulnerable position for a running back to be in and usually results in the stumbling of the back.

Gray avoids this stumble due to his excellent balance. He quickly regains full strength, enabling him to engage defenders in the defensive backfield. He will break the tackle 9 out of 10 times if the defender engaging him utilizes poor technique. NFL scouts typically call this attribute “softening contact.” Gray is excellent at softening defender contact due to his combination of power and balance.

Numbers: At the NFL combine, Gray had a broad jump of 9-feet-10-inches and a vertical of 37.5-inches. Gray ran a 4.62 forty-yard dash and bench pressed 14 repetitions.

Draft day: Gray’s game will transition well in the NFL. Since his freshman year at Tennessee, Gray has transformed his body and added considerable muscle. This shows his work ethic is high. He is an intelligent running back with patience and explosiveness, both critical in the NFL. Gray will be drafted in the late second to the early third round. He isn’t considered an elite running back, like Texas’ Bijan Robinson (2022 Doak Walker Award winner).

NFL teams usually are only comfortable drafting a running back in the first round if they show elite-level talent that will likely pay off immediately due to the short shelf life of RBs in the NFL. However, this year’s NFL Draft class plays to Gray’s advantage because the running backs are weak.

Gray has the talent and tape to be selected in the late second round, but I would not be surprised if he goes in the third. If Gray goes undrafted past the third round, I consider it a steal for whichever team picks him.

Best fit (s): The best fit for Gray would be with the Dallas Cowboys. With the recent departure of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys need a relief back to Tony Pollard. Gray’s style is similar to old-time Zeke, and he would fit in well in the Dallas offense. He is an able pass catcher who would fit well in protection schemes. Dallas holds the 58th pick in the second round, and that’s where I could see Gray getting his first look. Dallas also retains the 90th pick in the third round, another likely (yet slightly late) spot for Gray.

The second place I picture Gray fitting in is with the Philadelphia Eagles. Philly has a solid starting running back in Rashaad Penny but a weak selection of backups. With fellow Sooner Jalen Hurts running the dynamic offense in Philly, I see Gray’s game matching up well in the zone read. Philly needs a solid backup for Penny, and Gray fits that description to a tee. Philly holds two picks that fall in Gray’s range, with the 62nd and 94th picks.

The final fit I find attractive for Gray is with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh has one of the NFL’s top running backs in Najee Harris. Najee’s running style is effective and aggressive; however, it shortens his NFL life rapidly, especially with zero depth behind him. I could see the Steelers drafting Gray with the 80th pick in the third round as an investment in their franchise back Najee Harris. Gray would fit nicely with the Matt Canada offense and be a productive and dependable backup for the eventual market-setting running back in Pittsburgh.

Overall Gray’s skillset will lend him success in the NFL. I could see him going somewhere in the late 2nd/early 3rd round and seeing limited early playing time in the NFL. That’s not a bad thing for him, though. He is an extremely hard-working person, and he’s highly intelligent. Limited early playing time, mixed with his work ethic and development speed, could serve him well in lengthening his NFL lifespan. The longer Gray adjusts to the professional game, the better for his career.

Sooner Nation will miss Eric Gray. His stable presence served as a rock in introducing the Brent Venables era. He was utilized often during the 2022 season and consistently came through for the Sooners, often seeming like the only source of production for the Sooner offense. Wherever he lands, he will make it work.

I look forward to watching Eric Gray multiply his success in the NFL for years to come.