Pitt RB Graham runs toward a full recovery
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It's no secret that, through two games, there haven't been many encouraging signs for Pitt.
Oddly enough, though, one of the biggest positives for the Panthers might have been the biggest question mark heading into the season.
So far, at least, running back Ray Graham looks well on his way to a complete recovery.
After some doubts that he would even play in the team's opener against Youngstown State, Graham has 174 yards on 33 carries this season. Against Cincinnati, he carried 19 times for 103 yards.
"I'm feeling good. I feel like I'm improving every week," he said. "I feel like every week it's getting better, stronger."
Graham admitted that he wasn't quite back to form yet. On a 50-yard run in the third quarter Thursday, it looked as if Graham may have been able to beat Cincinnati cornerback Camerron Cheatham to the outside and take it to the end zone. Instead, he cut back in and was tackled around midfield.
"I don't want to compare 'old Ray' to 'this Ray,' but I'd say just me trusting it before, I probably would've tried to outrun the dude," Graham said.
"My explosiveness, I feel like it ain't there right now. The stick shift, I need to get in four gears. I feel like it's coming and coming as the games go on."
After that 50-yard run, Graham came out and freshman Rushel Shell took Pitt's next two carries. Shell and Isaac Bennett combined for 13 carries for 55 yards Thursday, and that may just be the key to Graham's recovery -- having two capable backups to handle the load when he needs to rest.
"Three is always better than one," Graham said.
The Cincinnati game was Shell's first taste of collegiate football, as the highly recruited freshman was suspended for the opener for disciplinary reasons. He finished with 34 yards on eight carries, mostly in the first half.
Shell admitted he was surprised when the coaches called for him to take the field on Pitt's third drive, a little more than five minutes into the game.
"My first run, it was really a relief to me," he said. "I was like, 'I can do this. This is something I can do. I can excel at this level.' I've just got to keep working as hard as I've been."
One area that Shell said he needed to improve was his pass protection. During his stellar career at Hopewell High School -- in which he set the Pennsylvania high school career rushing record -- that was never part of the job description.
"I didn't know what a protection was coming in here," Shell said. "It was rough at first, but I'm really getting a grasp of it now, and I think I should succeed at it."
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said pass blocking was an area where all three running backs could improve but noted that Shell was "further behind the eight ball" as a freshman.
Still, all three backs have shown that they're more than capable of handling the load when they get the ball in their hands.
Rudolph said there was no secret in determining how to split up the carries.
Against Cincinnati, Graham and Shell got all of the first-half carries, with Bennett's first touch coming late in the third quarter.
"I think it's just getting a feel," Rudolph said. "[Running backs coach Desmond Robinson] does a great job of kind of keeping an eye on those guys. I think it's a feel, it's a rhythm. You try to keep them fresh, but at the same time, if a guy's got a rhythm built, going with him."
Against the Bearcats, Pitt ran 36 times and passed 43 times after facing an early 14-0 deficit.
"You can't just say [you want to run the ball] because you've got to be able to move the football and make first downs," Rudolph said. "I think that first and foremost is always your goal. If you could run it and do it steadily, you feel great about it, but I think with this group, you've got to mix it up."
First Published September 13, 2012 12:00 am