Countdown To Training Camp: Running Back

Ray Graham is well-established as Pitt's No. 1 running back. The biggest question for the 2011 group, is which running back will claim the No. 2 spot behind Graham. Will Zach Brown come in and lay claim right away? Can Desmond Brown hold on to the spot he established for himself in spring ball, or can one of the true freshmen step in right away? These answers will come through in training camp.

One question facing the Pitt offense will be decided after the Panthers play a few games. That question will be in the form of whether Tino Sunseri's success or Ray Graham's success is more important to the Pitt offense. In other words, if the Pitt passing game is slow out of the gate, can Pitt rely on Ray Graham running the football? Or, if for some reason Pitt wants to throw the ball every play, can they still keep Ray Graham heavily involved?

There is no question when it comes to Ray Graham, that there is a lot of excitement about the thought of what he can do in this offense. Graham had a tremendous year in 2010, rushing for 920 yards while still sharing the workload with Dion Lewis, who came on late to rush for over 1,000 yards. There remains excitement and optimism from the running back position losing Lewis and two-year starter at fullback Henry Hynoski, who both decided to forego their final years of eligibility.

Graham has shown playmaking ability since he came to campus. The biggest difference now, is that instead of having to share carries with Lewis, Graham will get the majority of Pitt's carries. No one knows how much Pitt will run the ball with Graham—but he's going to be the go-to guy at that tailback position, a luxury he didn't have a year ago.

Is there a question of if he is capable of handling that kind of role? No. Look no further at other points in his career—the 2009 game against Notre Dame where he ripped off a 53-yard run, the 2009 game at Louisville where he rushed for 75 yards in a blue-collar effort, and his 277-yard escapade against Florida International last September. His 277 yards may have come in a non-BCS game, but of all non-BCS opponents that Pitt has had over the last 35 years, only Tony Dorsett's 303 yards against Notre Dame in 1975 were more in a single game at Pitt. If Graham wasn't able to rush for at least 1,000 yards this season, it would have to be called an underachievement on his part.

The question here, will be who will join Graham, and how many carries will that person/persons share?

Coming in, Todd Graham has said the three-back—which is a hybrid tight end/fullback position—is someone who can also run the ball regularly. Charles Clay showed that at Tulsa, rushing for 226 yards on 34 carries, while picking up another 526 yards on 43 receptions. We're still a couple of years away from seeing Todd Graham bring in the exact replica of players he sees will fit that position. Isaac Bennett is one of those players. It's also unlikely we'll see Hubie Graham or Brock DeCicco run the ball in those type of situations. We could see Graham and DeCicco at the three-back for passing-down situations, with a heavy dose of Zach Brown at the three-back, alongside Ray Graham in the backfield, for those running situations. In other words, Brown would combine with Hubie Graham and DeCicco to create what Clay did for Tulsa.

There's no question Brown is a great addition, coming over to finish out his final year of eligibility after spending the previous four seasons at Wisconsin. The challenge is going to be how many carries he can get aside from Ray Graham, and how much he'll be able to impact the offense in those carries.

Brown's addition will also help with the transition of two freshmen, and help offset the loss of one of the 2011 signees, Jeremiah Bryson. Bryson announced two weeks ago that he left the program, and play for Middle Tennessee State where he can be closer to his family. It would allow Pitt to redshirt both of the freshmen, or give them time to develop instead of having to force them to play right away behind Ray Graham—something that was initially expected when they signed with Pitt in February.

Despite losing Bryson, Pitt can still find a way to get either Malcolm Crockett or Corey Davis in. That is, of course, assuming both players are able to hold off walk-on Desmond Brown. Brown joined the team as a walk-on in January, and was one of the stars of the spring.

Last year, it was a recurring question each week—which running back would get the bulk of the carries. There will be no question about that this season. Ray Graham will be the featured back, and it's been evident that Todd Graham—since he was hired—has been talking about different ways to get Graham involved. Brown should be able to impact the team, though it's no guarantee he will, especially with a first-year coaching staff who may be eager to showcase their recruiting efforts, in the mold of Crockett and Davis.


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