Pitt Panthers fans have spent the summer talking about plenty different things. The difference new head coach Paul Chryst will make, the impending move to the ACC, or the fact that they have to suffer through another season with Tino Sunseri under center are all popular topics among Panthers faithful.
But the hottest topic of the offseason has been the recovery of tailback Ray Graham.
Graham hasn’t played a game in about a year. We last saw him in uniform in a late October game against Connecticut, where he left the game with a torn ACL after only two carries. Before that though, Graham was something special.
Through seven weeks of the 2011 season, Graham was the only positive in Todd Graham’s sputtering low-octane offense and was second the nation in rushing with 958 yards.
However this season is like starting from scratch for Graham, as he’s gone from potential superstar to question mark.
Chryst brings back a traditional pro-style offense that Graham can excel in, but just being back on the field doesn’t answer all the questions about his knee.
Don’t expect Chryst to rush his best player back though. Graham has been held out of several practices during fall camp as part of his recovery plan, and only began contact work earlier this week.
Both Chryst and Graham should be cautious with his recovery, because there is no need to rush his return. Nor is there a need for him to risk further injury against an FCS opponent like Youngstown State.
Looking forward, that means realistically Graham could return in the Panthers’ Big East opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 6.
“I just want to come back and don’t want to look back,” Graham told ESPN.com during the media event. “I want to make sure that I’m 100 percent ready. I don’t want to go out there because everybody is saying they want me out there. I still want to be smart about my situation. If I’m not ready, I don’t want to make a mistake to where I get hurt again. I want to go out there to where I have confidence and not be thinking about that.”
What does it mean for the Pitt if Graham can return to form only 10 months after his injury?
If he’s completely back, then Pitt has one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the Big East and the likely choice for Big East Offensive Player of the Year. With Graham returning to form, he alone could carry the Panthers form a middle-of-the-pack team to one that could contend for a conference championship- something Pitt has never won outright as a member of the Big East.
Graham is one of few current Big East players who has star potential, as even ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit predicted him to win Big East Player of the Year honors.
If he can’t return to form and show a glimpse of being the Graham of old, it will be a devastating hit for the Panthers.
The one thing Pitt has is depth in the backfield as sophomore Isaac Bennett is capable of carrying a majority of the workload and redshirt freshman Malcom Crockett is expected to play a role as well. Then there’s the highly recruited Rushel Shell, the WPIAL’s all-time leading rusher, who Chryst could redshirt if Graham comes back healthy.
But while there’s depth in the backfield, none of the three bring to this team what Graham does. He’s a veteran that has both the ability to hit a home run any time he touches the ball and can grind out a 25-30 carry-type of afternoon as well.
Graham making it back to form will be a lift for this Panthers team both in terms of production and emotionally.
If he’s all the way back, this Pitt team could surprise and contend. If he’s not it could be another long season for the Panthers.
Having said that, you can see why all eyes will be on the senior tailback from this point on.