BY NATALIE BIGLEY
Rewind to Oct. 26, 2011.
On that date, Pitt beat Connecticut, 35-20, at Heinz Field but walked away with a big loss when star tailback Ray Graham suffered a season-ending injury.
Graham’s leg buckled after a tackle on a 1-yard run. He was only 42 yards away from reaching 1,000 yards on the season.
Graham’s back, just a little more cautious.
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst talked about Graham on Monday in his weekly Big East conference call. He said that Graham is still in the recovery process, but making big strides.
“I appreciate the work and effort that he’s put in,” Chryst said. “He’s still progressing, I don’t think he’s 100 percent, but each week he clears some hurdles. He’s gaining confidence. It’s not to a point where he’s taking any steps backwards.”
And Chryst feels there’s no need to rush the process and risk Graham overexerting his knee.
Maybe that’s why Graham is getting less carries this season.
Though he’s not fully recovered, his numbers are still impressive.
Graham is the 29th leading rusher in the nation with 362 yards. His rushing total ranks second in the Big East, behind Rutgers Jawan Jamison, who is fifth in the nation with 491 yards.
Chryst acknowledged Graham’s impressive numbers but still said there’s work to be done.
“Where he’s at in the league doesn’t really matter, none of those things really matter as much as where a guy can be and helping him get to where he’s playing the best he can play,” Chryst said.
Still, fans might be seeing glimpses of the old, quick-footed Graham.
In last week’s 55-10 victory against Gardner-Webb, he outran defenders and found the end zone on a 78-yard touchdown.
“Obviously, it’s a credit to Ray,” Chryst said. “He’s talented and done some good things, but we all can get better here. Being around a full-speed Ray would be a pretty good thing.”
Until that full-speed Graham has returned, other Pitt backs are getting their fair share of touches.
And doing this with impressive results.
Freshman Rushel Shell has seen plenty of action and is averaging a little over five yards a carry. He went for a career-high 157 yards against Virginia Tech.
Sophomore Isaac Bennett has also handed the ball a sufficient amount.
In last week’s game against Gardner-Webb, Bennett finished with 52 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
Chryst said that, despite the backs varied amount of playing time, the game dictates how he will utilize each one.
“You just make sure every guy understands that,” Chryst said. “They know what the deal is, and they’re getting better at practice. They’ll all get their opportunities in games and we’ve got to make sure they’re ready to go. And they’ve got to make sure they’re ready to go when their numbers get called.”
After the win against Virginia Tech, Chryst acknowledged the pride he’s seen in his running back group, perhaps stemming from the great running back tradition at Pitt.
Former running back Curtis Martin was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he joined Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.
“I think that’s part of the special thing about being at Pitt,” Chryst said. “If you’re a player here, it’s knowing you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you. There’s been greats before you.“
Former Pitt backs Dion Lewis, LeSean McCoy and Johnstown native LaRod Stephens-Howling are all currently playing in the National Football League.
In fact, Graham and Lewis were teammates before Lewis was drafted in 2011. The duo provided a good one-two punch.
If Graham’s numbers are right after this season, he could join the ranks of these former backs.