In keeping with my recent links to Pitt football previews, here is another one for your viewing.
The biggest expectation for Panther fans this season is that Ray Graham will burst into an elite back. He is shifty in open space and has good speed. While not exactly Dion Lewis, Graham has improved his behind-the-line vision. Patience has also been a question mark for the junior back.
Perhaps his most valuable asset is as a pass catcher though. Last season, Tulsa’s second leading rusher was Damaris Johnson rushed the ball 55 times for 560 yards and caught 57 passes for 872 yards. Johnson also scored 11 touchdowns. The comparison between Johnson and Graham is slightly off due to the fact that Johnson was primarily a Wide Receiver. But, Johnson had almost as many rushes as he had catches. Todd Graham knows how to get the ball in his best player’s hands. Ray Graham could see action split out of the backfield as well as his regular routes from behind the line. Last season, he caught 23 balls for 213 yards.
Just because Graham will be more involved in the pass game does not mean that his running duties will sputter. From my earlier article on Todd Graham’s offense:
“Many fans believe Graham features a pass-first strategy–and he does. What people fail to understand is that the former Tulsa and Rice head coach does not simply abandon the run. Since 2006, his team’s total rushing mark has eclipsed Pitt’s total four times. Only once, in 2009, did the Panthers boast more total rushing yards. Over those five seasons, Graham’s running backs gained 3,031 more yards than the Panthers backfield. That figure is 687 yards better than Pitt’s highest season rushing total during that time frame. Keep in mind, the Panthers have had three running backs drafted since 2006.”
Zach Brown is the only true prospect that can take carries away from Graham. As much as I liked the pick-up, Brown is not a back that will overtake Graham or even challenge him production-wise. This means that Graham will likely see the field more than any Pitt skill player. With Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson anchoring the offensive line, the unit will be an improvement over last year’s shoddy core.
A new system combined with an upgraded line and a sparse backfield will afford Graham the opportunity to become Pitt’s best running back since LeSean McCoy.