NEWPORT, R.I. -- It wouldn't be a stretch to classify the rehabilitation of senior tailback Ray Graham's torn right knee ligament as the most important offseason development at Pitt, and that's because a strong case can be made that Graham is the Panthers' most important player.
There are some talented young running backs on the roster, -- like Isaac Bennett -- who have shown they can get the job done, and one of the most-heralded freshman tailbacks in the nation (Hopewell's Rushel Shell) also will step into the mix.
But, if the Panthers are going to have a chance to win the conference title in their final season in the Big East, they likely are going to need Graham to return to form as one of the best tailbacks in the nation.
That won't be easy because Graham has had a long, hard road to come back from a season-ending knee injury which occurred in the Panthers eighth game last year (Oct. 26 against Connecticut). Even now, about 10 months later, he is not exactly sure if he is all the way back.
"I don't want to put a percentage on how healthy I am. I'll wait to see how it feels when I hit the field," Graham said Tuesday at Big East media day. "I know that I feel good, I know that I am healthy, I just don't know how my knee will respond once we start playing football. That's really one of those things that nobody knows; we just have to wait and see."
Pitt coach Paul Chryst had a similar answer when asked where he thought Graham was in his rehab process, and he said that only Graham will truly know.
Chryst added that the coaches won't push him to play before he is ready.
He said the coaching staff's approach with Graham -- and all players returning from injury -- will be cautious because the Panthers would much rather have Graham healthy in September when the games begin than next week as training camp opens.
"I don't know [how close Graham is to being healthy]," Chryst said. "I mean, everything is good and [the doctors] say he's good, but you don't know, and the injury is so individual. ... We anticipate him going day one, we are fired up about that.
"He has been able to go back-to-back workouts, but I don't know about back-to-back practice, what will that be like compared to the workouts? I think we have to be smart and communicate."
Graham is not the only player returning from a major injury, but, given the team's transition from a spread offense to a pro-style offense with a renewed emphasis on the power running game, his recovery will be heavily scrutinized by everybody until he proves he can make all the cuts he needs to make as well as absorb a big hit.
Last year, Graham pushed his way into the national dialogue about top players before he got injured. He was the nation's second-leading rusher (134.14 ypg) heading into the Connecticut game in which he got hurt.
Despite missing the final three games, he finished with 958 yards, nine touchdowns (5.8 yards per carry) and he also caught 30passes for 200 yards. He was named to the Big East's all-conference first team.
Graham said that he worked hard in the offseason to give himself a chance to get back on the field, but he is not bitter that the injury happened. In fact, he feels fortunate because he gets a chance to come back from the injury, something many injured players do not get.
He said he used the courage and perseverance of players like paralyzed former Rutgers lineman Eric LeGrand and Pitt linebacker Dan Mason, who has battled back from a devastating knee injury two years ago to get back on the field, as examples of players who have fought through adversity.
"I am going to come back and do what I have to do in order to get back on that field because [playing football] is something I love to death," Graham said. "Football is my heart, I want to go out there and give it my all. When I go out there, I am not going to take a step backward.
"I try not to question God, but sometimes I just say 'what was the reason for this' but I don't know, I never looked back, I never thought negative thoughts and I kept positive.
"So this is something small, this situation is small because I know it always could be worse."
Graham said he knows that there are young guys ready to step in if he can't make it back, but he sees competition as a good thing.
"It is definitely going to give me a little push," Graham said of the presence of Bennett, Shell and others.
"It will let me know that [I have] to get things going. We have these two backs who are not slouches, who are coming in thinking they are going to play, and I want to play as well."
Paul Zeise: email@example.com and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published August 2, 2012 4:30 AM