BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Everyone has a different answer for when they knew Ray Graham was back.
For some, it was as soon as he took a carry against Youngstown State in the season opener, despite reports that he wouldn't be ready.
For others, it was when he scored his first touchdown of the season against Virginia Tech. Graham himself likes this moment, when he juked past Hokies safety Kyshoen Jarrett on a 12-yard touchdown run.
Some still skeptical maybe had to wait until the fourth quarter of the Temple game, when Graham bursted through for a 35-yard run and made several Owls defenders miss along the way.
By the time the Panthers traveled to Notre Dame Nov. 3, there was little question that Graham was fully recovered from the ACL injury that cut short his 2011 season. Still, Graham made sure there was absolutely no doubt, rushing for 172 yards -- including a 55-yard sprint on Pitt's first play from scrimmage -- against one of the top rush defenses in Division I-A.
Heading into the BBVA Compass Bowl Saturday at Legion Field, Graham's final game in a Pitt uniform, he has 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, his first 1,000-yard campaign. With his 94 yards in the regular season finale against South Florida, Graham passed Curvin Richards to move into second place on Pitt's all-time rushing list behind Tony Dorsett.
While such a senior season might have seemed in doubt when Graham was being helped off of Heinz Field in October 2011, the way he sees it, there was never any question.
"I definitely was dedicated and I was focused," Graham said. "I've been real determined. Even now, I want to go out there and become better than the old Ray."
"Old Ray" would have been hard enough to duplicate. When he went down, Graham was Division I-A's second-leading rusher with 958 yards through eight games. Things were going so well, Graham admitted the thought of leaving school early for the NFL draft crossed his mind.
"The way I was going, the way everything was going, it definitely would have been a decision me and my family would've made," he said. "Who knows? I don't know. It would've been a tough decision I would've had to make."
In that Oct. 26 victory against Connecticut, though, Graham fell to the turf after a 1-yard run in the first quarter. He grabbed his right leg and had to be helped off the field.
Pitt athletic trainer Rob Blanc said Graham's injury was a relatively clean ACL tear. There was no significant cartilage damage, but Graham still faced an 8-12-month recovery window.
While some players, such as Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas, can play through an ACL injury, that was never an option for Graham.
"It's very difficult for a running back, wide receiver, defensive back, to play ACL-deficient," Blanc said. "Just because of the nature of what they do. It's a little bit easier if you're a lineman, even linebackers."
Graham said he woke up every day for his grinding rehabilitation work "with a smile on his face," thanks largely to the support system around him. Graham said he drew inspiration from linebacker Dan Mason, who recovered from a gruesome knee injury two years ago, and his brother Khaseem Greene, a Rutgers linebacker who spent the offseason recovering from a serious ankle injury.
"I just look at it as God's not going to put anything in your life that you can't handle. I really believe that," Graham said.
"[Khaseem and I would] call each other from time to time, let each other know it's a grind for us. How bad do we want it? You're only going to go as far as you take yourself and what you're willing to do, what sacrifices I wanted to make."
Graham donned a red no-contact jersey for most of training camp, but perhaps the most important part of his rehabilitation was just getting accustomed to contact again.
"It's also getting him comfortable with doing that, mentally getting through the process of, 'Well I did this once before and my knee gave out. If I do it again, what's going to keep my knee from giving out?' " Blanc said.
Graham pointed to a play in the loss to Louisville when he was assigned to block on pass protection, but got caught up and twisted his knee. Unlike that game in October 2011, Graham got back up and played the next play.
"I had to chop somebody low and my knee bent all the way back," he said. "It bent real bad, far. So I was like, 'Alright, it's good.' "
Now finally back to "the old Ray" -- or better, if you ask him -- Graham's next task is working his way into the NFL. He will play in the East-West Shrine All-Star Game after the bowl, and then prepare for Pitt's pro day and the NFL scouting combine.
"Just yesterday I was a freshman," he said. "It's been a long way, but I'm excited. I'm excited for what's to come, I'm excited for what's in the future."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @SWernerPG. First Published January 3, 2013 5:00 AM