Pitt's Ray Graham embracing running back legacy
If for some reason Pitt junior running back Ray Graham needed another reminder about the elite fraternity he's about to join, two of the school's former star running backs, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, dropped by the Panthers' South Side practice facility Thursday morning, a mere 48 hours after Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett addressed the team.
''It's always good to talk to great backs, somebody that you can relate to,'' Graham said.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Graham has all the tools to become Pitt's next great feature back, a role once occupied by Dorsett and the two current pros, McCoy and Lewis, who were in town for the Steelers' preseason game that night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
And with first-year coach Todd Graham promising to run plays at warp speed, the numbers could pile up in a hurry for Graham, whose name has already been attached to several preseason All-Big East honors.
''I think Ray is ready to take that (feature back) role on,'' said co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, who also works with the team's running backs. ''He's quiet about it, but I think he understands the role and he's focused on it.''
If Graham - an Elizabeth, N.J., native who ran for 922 yards and eight touchdowns as Lewis' backup in 2010 - can be as productive as his predecessors, it will go a long way toward flipping the national perception of Pitt - again.
Once known for churning out running backs like Dorsett, Curtis Martin and Craig ''Ironhead'' Heyward, Pitt transformed into a wide receiver factory a decade ago, with Latef Grim, Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald gaining national exposure.
Recent first-round pick Jon Baldwin aside, the succession of McCoy, Lewis and Graham could re-establish Pitt's status as a running back's dream.
Graham has appeared in all 25 games of his college career and started twice last fall, as Pitt finished 8-5 and settled for an invitation to the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Graham secured a spot next to Dorsett when he put up 277 yards during a 44-17 win over Florida International on Oct. 2, second only to Dorsett's school-record 303 against Notre Dame in 1975.
''Ray has the ability to be a great back,'' Magee said. ''He's shown the ability to be a feature guy, but the expectation is that he shows up every day to work and be what we need him to be. And in our case, we need him to be a guy that carries a heavy load.''
Graham spoke with McCoy and Lewis for about 20 minutes in the team's locker room Thursday before the two pros had to depart for meetings - not that they could have talked shop all that easily.
McCoy and Lewis played for Dave Wannstedt in a slower, pro-style scheme. Graham, meanwhile, has been learning the new coach's fast-paced spread offense, which figures to enable Graham to become more of a receiving threat than McCoy or Lewis.
''With this offense I'll be able to catch the ball a lot more and show (off) my hands a little bit,'' said Graham, who caught 24 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. ''I think this offense is a real good fit for a running back.''