RB Graham might see action in Pitt football opener

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Pitt's running back of the present and its running back of the future showed the coaches enough in the final week of training camp to make it possible that both could play in the season opener Saturday against Youngstown State at Heinz Field.

Given the way the first two weeks of camp unfolded, that's positive news for coach Paul Chryst as he prepares for his first game as a head coach.

Senior Ray Graham is 10 months removed from a major knee injury. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 26 against Connecticut. Graham was limited at the beginning of camp, but came on strong last week.

"It was certainly the best week he had," said Chryst, whose previous job was offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin. "He was able to do more things, and he gained confidence. That's a big part of it. The encouraging thing for us and Ray is he feels like's he's progressing.

"Each day you see how it is and how it responds. I'd much rather play him a day later than a day too soon. We'll keep talking to Ray and see how it's going. We're certainly a better team with him, but we also want to makes sure we're doing what's right for him."

Graham was the second-leading rusher in Division I-A before his injury. He gained 958 yards through the first seven games, which was on pace for the second-best rushing season in school history behind Tony Dorsett.

With the Big East Conference opener five days later at Cincinnati and a big non-conference game against Virginia Tech the following week, the safe move would be to hold Graham out of the Youngstown State game.

If Graham is held out, sophomore Isaac Bennett would step into the starting role. He performed well in place of Graham the second half of last season, rushing for 237 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries. Bennett would be spelled by freshman Rushel Shell, who beat out redshirt freshman Malcolm Crockett to be No. 3 on the depth chart.

Senior center Ryan Turnley is enthused about the possible return of Graham, but he also said the offense is in good hands if Bennett is the Week 1 starter.

"He's a great player," Turnley said of Graham. "Last year before he got hurt he was probably the best running back in the country. If we can have him out there that will be a huge boost for us. And if not, we'll keep working and have faith in our other running backs.

"We knew [Bennett was capable] last year when he stepped in for Ray and did a great job. This spring and this camp, he solidified that. We all know he can play. He can be a great player. We have a lot of confidence in him."

Shell came to Pitt with high expectations after being recognized as one of the top running backs recruits as a high school senior at Hopewell. But he struggled in the early stages of camp and considered the possibility of redshirting because he was so far behind the others on the depth chart.

Those plans were nullified when he passed Crockett with some strong showings in practice last week.

"Last week was a good week for Rushel," Chryst said. "He missed some time in fall camp. Last week he got into a groove and got to do a lot more. We feel good about going forward with Rushel."

NOTES -- Chryst is confident starting receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan will be healthy enough to play against Youngstown State. Both were limited by injuries in camp, especially Street who only has a few full practices under his belt. ... Chryst said starting CB K'Wuan Williams' status is up in the air for Saturday. He has an arm injury. If Williams cannot play, freshman Jahmahl Pardner would start. ... Chryst said the plan, for now, is to redshirt highly touted freshman QB Chad Voytik, who is behind starter Tino Sunseri and sophomore Trey Anderson on the depth chart. "Chad has been able to get a lot of work," Chryst said. "You want to keep developing him, and yet right now, I feel really good where Tino is at and I think Trey has improved. We just have to keep taking it as it comes. I'll never put any player in who's not ready for it. I like the way Chad has progressed. We just have to keep that going. We'll see what happens."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published August 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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