Pitt Football: Graham runs to the front

Pitt freshman makes quick strides in camp, in line for No. 2 TB spot

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Pitt freshman tailback Ray Graham entered training camp as a long shot in a crowded tailback competition and a possible candidate for a redshirt.

But as training camp moves into its last few days, it is clear that Graham has made his move and is now one of the top two tailbacks in the rotation.

And Graham didn't need to rely on others getting injured to make his move. He did it the old-fashioned way -- he earned it.

Graham, who is from Elizabeth, N.J., was the star of the scrimmage Saturday (he rushed for 128 yards and scored three touchdowns). He is tough and durable enough to take hits and to shed tacklers and agile enough to make defenders miss.

He said he knew that a poor performance in Saturday's scrimmage could have led to him having to take a redshirt, so he viewed it as a chance to make an impression.

But he also knows the scrimmage was just a start for him. The hard part now is to continue to hold onto one of the spots because the competition is so strong.

"The second scrimmage was definitely a big step for me," Graham said. "It was like an evaluation day for the running backs to see who would be at the No. 2 spot. I went out there like there was no stress or pressure on me.

"I just went out there, played football and had fun."

Graham's rise up the depth chart is mildly surprising. The Panthers have three other good tailbacks vying for the starting tailback job left by LeSean McCoy.

Freshman Dion Lewis was the star of spring practice and entered training camp as the starting tailback. He has maintained that job and likely will be the starter Sept. 5 when the Panthers play host to Youngstown State.

The second spot appeared to be a competition between redshirt freshman Chris Burns and redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris. Both had shown flashes of brilliance over the past year working behind McCoy and it was believed one or the other would be the heir apparent.

"The [first-team tailback] and [second-team tailback] will play a lot," Graham said. "There's not just a starter. Dion is the starter, but me and Chris are working hard to help the team, too."

Harris, however, fell behind Burns for the second tailback spot last week because he was suspended for two weeks for disciplinary reasons.

But Graham, who is 5 feet 9 and 177 pounds, had other ideas. Graham's combination of speed and power made him one of the top-ranked tailbacks coming out of New Jersey and one of the top 20 tailback prospects in the nation.

He rushed for 1,592 yards and 24 touchdowns last season and averaged 9 yards per carry last season as a senior for Elizabeth High School.

Graham struggled early in camp and appeared to be headed for redshirt status after he fumbled twice in the first scrimmage last Tuesday. But he finished the week strong and he capped it with a big Saturday. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Graham is going to be in the rotation for playing time.

Graham was asked what has changed in the past week and he said he has relaxed and started playing football the same way he did in high school.

"When I was in high school I didn't have to read a big playbook," Graham said. "I just practiced. Now you have to know your assignments because every play counts. I have to know where to be.

"The athleticism is always going to be there. It's just the mental part, knowing my assignments that I need to continue to work on."

NOTES -- Defensive end Tony Tucker, a redshirt sophomore from Bowie, Md., has been away from practice for personal reasons for the past week. "I'm just about to the point where it is unlikely he will be able to return," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It is not a team issue or a discipline issue. This is solely some personal problems at home he is dealing with." ... Defensive end Jabaal Sheard (knee), tight end Dorin Dickerson (hamstring) and tight end Nate Byham (concussion) continue to miss practice with nagging injuries. ... Receiver Ed Tinker sat out yesterday because of an illness but is expected to return today.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720


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