Despite Pitt losing two-time 1,000-yard rusher Dion Lewis, they are in as good a situation as any program has ever been in replacing a 1,000-yard rusher. That's because Ray Graham finished with 952 yards of his own last year, which included two starts and three 100-yards performances. His 277 yards in Week Four against Florida International was the second-highest total for a back in school history.
In an offense that predicates itself on being fast-pace, up-tempo and dare we say high-octane, these are all terms that can already be used to describe Ray Graham. While big numbers may seem like a given for Graham in this offense, there's still a need for him to have a strong camp and progress. Head coach Todd Graham says that's one of the most impressive thing about it—despite the preseason expectations for Graham, and the thought of what he could do in an offense that intends to run 82 plays a game, the junior running back brings it every day.
"The thing that I've been encouraged with, is the development of Ray Graham," head coach Todd Graham said Thursday. "I think Zach (Brown) has really helped to develop him and push him, and those young running backs. Ray worked unbelievably this summer. He's bought in as a complete player. He's always worked hard when it's come to football. He's become a complete player in his blocking; on the field, off the field and everything that he's doing. I'm really proud of him. I think we're coming together. I'm really excited about what we can do."
Here's one example of Ray Graham's character. Two NFL running backs dropped by the Pitt practice facility—Dion Lewis and LeSean McCoy, both who played at Pitt, both now of the Philadelphia Eagles. Graham even had to battle sharing carries with Lewis last year, all this coming off three consecutive 100-yard performances last season.
For most college players, it can be perceived as a motivational thing. Not for Graham. Outside of getting a chance to get caught up with Lewis—someone he keeps in touch with regularly via text message—Graham has a deeper motivation.
"I think those things are good, to motivate Ray, but I think that he's motivated from deeper within than having someone come in to have a talk with him," Todd Graham added. "I think that he has really bought in to what we're doing. We found some things that we didn't know. We knew he could do a lot of things well. We found some things that he can do, that we really didn't know he can do that's going to really make him an exciting player to watch."
One thing that has kept Graham on his toes this training camp, is the number of reps he's been forced to take. Last year, he had to share reps with Lewis. Now, all the first-team reps are Graham's. There's an eagerness on Graham's part to take all those reps. He's been clearly comfortable with this offense since the spring. Co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee adds there's a conditioning element to it, if Graham truly is going to get the number of touches that a lot are projecting.
"When you're preparing a kid for the season, you have to get him ready," Magee added. "For as much as we want him to touch the ball, he has to get in that kind of shape. To do it in a game, you have to have enough practices to get him those looks. You have to be smart. You want to keep him healthy and all that, but he's got to get his work."
Magee has been waiting to unleash Graham for quite some time. Graham was one of the first people—not just players and coaches—but first people, that Magee met when coming to Pittsburgh. Even coming from Michigan this past year, where he tutored quarterback Denard Robinson and in the past when he's been around players at West Virginia such as Pat White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine—Magee says Graham is a special talent, when thinking about some of the players he has had over the years.
"No question," Magee said. "I was excited about his versatility, seeing that he could run routes and catch the ball and run the ball. Naturally, he can run. He can run inside the tackles and outside. He's pretty special, to me. He has great vision, quickness and great feet. He has all the qualities you can do a lot with."
Ray Graham takes it a step further. You might think coaches would play it safe, and hold him out as if to not risk injury. That happened to Graham last year after the team's second scrimmage, which forced him to miss the season-opener at Utah. Still, he understands it's part of football. He will have no part in playing scared, or worrying about getting hurt, though.
"If we play scared, that's when you get injured," Ray Graham said. "I feel that I just go out there, and just play. I think I'm well protected. We understand in this camp that we have to play hard and physical. We're still out there playing smart. The defense understands it, and we understand it too."
Graham carried the ball 148 times last season for 922 yards and 8 touchdowns. He tacked on another 24 receptions, which ranked sixth on the team in receptions. Though he caught a fair-share of passes last year, both he and the coaches expect him to topple those numbers from a year ago. In fact, Graham is so comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield, that he often guides his blockers downfield. He knows the plays that well already. Last week, he pointed at Cameron Saddler, who threw him a block and opened up another hole—where there were no defenders. This week, he pointed out another block towards receiver Mike Shanahan, who sprung him open for a 65-yard play. Graham says pointing out lead-blockers is not about showboating. He is just that comfortable in knowing the offense, and where his blockers should be.
"We know each other good and well because Cam knows I like to cut, so I like to set up blocks," Graham said, explaining last week's play. "When I'm running out there, and I like to point sometimes, I think when I do the pointing it's not for showboating. It's directing (traffic), that's what I like to do for us. I just like to have fun. I'm always smiling, I'm always excited. I'm happy.
"(Magee) put a lot of screens in there. I think that's going to help out a lot. We got Lucas Nix coming off (the line). I've never seen anybody get off like him, since I've been playing. When I got a touchdown (in practice), I have credit to him and all the linemen. I think that's going to be the key for our success in this offense too."