Pitt's Dynamic Duo

With Dion Lewis and Ray Graham accounting for 2,148 combined yards rushing and 21 touchdowns with 5.57 yards per carry, the Pitt football team could have the most dynamic running backs returning this season.

Sure, other pairs could get more notoriety, but this Pittsburgh duo -- now sophomores -- Dion Lewis and Ray Graham -- have to be the most exciting. Lewis has been at Pitt 15 months, and Graham nearly a year. And both already have shown improvement.

"It might be hard to believe, but Dion has gotten better,'' Pitt running backs coach David Walker said. "He sees things develop a lot better in front of him. And Ray, he really has improved. He's much more confident, and he can play a lot faster because he's more mentally prepared as well.

"Now, he can let his natural ability take over. That allows him to react, instead of thinking too much, but we'll see what happens with them in the scrimmage. That will give us a real good idea where they're at so far, because we won't give them some hints about things like we do when we're practicing.''

Pitt will hold about a 90-minute intra-squad scrimmage Saturday morning at 10:15 a.m., the first of three straight weeks with the annual Blue-Gold Game culminating spring practice sessions April 17 at 2 p.m. at Heinz Field. And the top two Panthers in the backfield should put on a show.

Walker wanted to discuss all his backs, however, including redshirt sophomore tailback Chris Burns and redshirt junior fullback Henry Hynoski. Redshirt frosh tailback Jason Douglas and fullback Kevin Adams also deserve mention.

"I prefer not to say top two, but a top four,'' Walker said. "Dion, Ray, Henry and Chris Burns. They'll get the most carries this coming season among our running backs. This spring, it's a lot different, because we know what to expect from those guys. And it's a lot more than we did a year ago at this time.

"Henry, Dion and Ray, basically, have been battle-tested. And Chris Burns, this is his third year in the program, so this is an experienced group even though they're still pretty young. It's not the same as we had with Conredge, LaRod and Shady a few years ago with multiple-year starters, but it's close.''

Graham probably has been the star of spring practices so far with several long, spectacular runs. That's not to take anything away from Lewis, who has been consistently good from the outset, but Graham's hard work this past offseason clearly paid off. And he couldn't wait to get back on the field again.

Graham gained about 15 pounds, to nearly 195 on his 5-foot-9 frame, to help handle him handle the punishment that he'll absorb this season. Lewis is closer to 5-7 and about 200 pounds now. So, the duo can be more physical this season.

"I'm a lot more solid than I was last season, so I can take more hits,'' Graham said. "And Dion is really tough, too, so we make a good pair. But we're different runners in our styles. We bring a lot to the table, and when you add Hynoski in there with Chris Burns, too, we have a nice group in our backfield.

"We learn a lot from each other and feed off each other, and we all get along very well. We have great competition and really push each other, and that makes us all better. I don't think it matters who gets the ball in that group, we're going to be successful running the ball a lot this season.''

Graham was Pitt's secondary ball carrier this season to Lewis, but he still had a solid season for a freshman with 349 yards rushing (5.7 average) and four touchdowns. Lewis finished with All-America numbers, 1,799 yards rushing (5.5 per carry) and 17 touchdowns.

"Just getting out there and getting exposure to high-level college ball, that was a blessing,'' Graham said. "For me coming in here in June, I didn't know what to expect. But I got my feet wet early and learned from watching Dion play. And I would say I'm more comfortable and definitely more confident this spring.

"Coach said I look a lot more sure of myself now, where I didn't always know what I was doing in the fall. So, that was the best thing about it. I made a real effort in the offseason to get bigger for the spring, but I wanted to stay quick and maybe even get a little quicker. And I want to learn everything I can.

"That's why I'm watching a lot more film than I did in the fall, and I want to bring that onto the field,'' Graham added. "You can never be too good to play football. There's always something you can improve on, some area where you can get better, so that's what I'm trying to do this spring.''

Lewis and Graham have been working on catching more passes, and Graham also has been trying to perfect a halfback pass from the red zone to Hynoski. Lewis doesn't do that, and there hasn't been any work in the Wildcat, either. But maybe it's because he's just starting to warm up.

"The first couple days, it took a little bit for me to get used to everything again,'' Lewis said. "But I'm back into it now, and I feel really good. I'm feeling really comfortable, and I'm looking forward to an even better season. I can't wait for our scrimmages, the spring game, camp and then the season.

"I've been here a year now, and I'm doing everything better from when I started. I'm bigger, stronger and faster, and I know the playbook better than ever. It's the same thing for Ray. He's really playing good. With us as a one-two punch, I don't think there's any better running back combo in the country.''

And for Pitt's dynamic duo of Lewis and Graham, the sky's the limit this season.

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