"Yes, he's starting," Wannstedt answered.
In the same sentence, he did say that Ray Graham--based on his 277-yard performance on Saturday--has earned the right to get more reps as well.
The reason? Wannstedt has had some success using two running backs. In fact, the need has become greater to use two backs, and easier at the same time. In 2005 when he came here, he needed everything he could get out of Rashad Jennings and LaRod Stephens-Howling--two true freshmen at the time. By 2007, he had some more flexibility with Stephens-Howling and LeSean McCoy.
Now, he's got a situation on his hands, where he has two proven running backs. In 2007, it was McCoy who could provide the big-play ability and workload that Stephens-Howling could not. Now, Pitt has a back in Lewis, who rushed for 1,799 yards as a true freshman, but hasn't gotten off to a great start this season. Graham is averaging 9.5 yards a carry, halfway to 1,000 yards in just three games played this season.
Monday, Wannstedt backed off his initial stance from Saturday, simply stating both backs will play against Notre Dame.
"I expect Dion to be fine this week," Wannstedt said in his Monday press conference. "Ray Graham and Dion Lewis will both practice and they will both play. We have a lot of other issues that are a concern to me, whether than who's going to be carrying the ball. We're fortunate to have both those guys, and we'll continue to play them both."
Regardless of who starts, there's more of a desire on Wannstedt's part to get both involved, and have both be a factor. Last year's Notre Dame game was a perfect example, where Lewis led the team in rushing with 152 yards and a touchdown. Graham, though, had 57 yards, including a long run of 53 that set up his final touchdown, which took the sail out of the Irish that night.
Two other things make this situation unique. There's not so much a push to make one the starter over the other, strictly because Wannstedt's philosophy is to use two running backs; three if you work Henry Hynoski into the mix too. One of the tougher things he has to deal with as a head coach is keeping both players happy. Though neither player has publicly complained about a lack of carries, or playing time, it's a position that fields players who are hungry for as many touches as possible. Luckily for Wannstedt, he's dealing with the type of humble characters in Graham and Lewis who are happy with any carry they can get. In fact, Lewis and Graham have developed a pretty good friendship through the course of being teammates for the last two seasons.
"I think that it is a good relationship," Wannstedt said of the two running backs. "I know that they're both very competitive, they have been. They both want the ball. Whether you're a receiver, a tight end or a running back, big-time guys want the ball. They feel that if they get the ball they can make a difference. That's the way you want them to think. The great ones think that way. You expect that.
"They're both very supportive of each other, but they're also very competitive. I think that Ray (Graham) showed what kind of person he is, with how he handled everything with Dion last year having all the success he had week-after-week. There's no more humble player on our team. Their relationship is good, but at the same time they're both going to be anxiously wanting the football come Saturday."
Whether Graham or Lewis starts, he also adds they are both the type of player that are realistic, and know based on what both have already done in their Pitt careers, that their next opportunity to burst on the scene, is as close as their next carry.
"I think you have to be honest with (either player)," Wannstedt said, via his Big East teleconference. "He probably really needs to have a real clear picture of what his opportunities are. I think you have to be honest with them, where he's at, but more importantly, where he can go, and here's where your opportunities are going to come.
"Having support (is also important). I know in Ray's standpoint, I have had several conversations with his Uncle, who‘s a strong presence. I remember talking to his high school coach last year a few times. I think having the players surrounded by people that will give him positive support is also key, as compared to negative, and saying, ‘You're not getting a fair shake there, you need to leave and transfer, or quit, or do whatever.' I think the support system that's around these players is very important."