As part of our 2012 season preview, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC for this season, from 25 to one. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective, so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Through what amounts to six-and-a-half games in 2011, Pitt running back Ray Graham managed to rack up over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns — a pace that had him among the best in all of college football. He had two games of three touchdowns each, another two games where he amassed over 200 yards on the ground. The stage was set for a special season for the junior, even if his team looked as if they’d fall short of expectations. But then, an ACL injury against Connecticut in October made it all come crashing down.
For 2012, Graham is looking to make a big comeback as the leader of a strong group of Panthers running backs. While he won’t be counting his chickens ’till they hatch, he was encouraged by his first day of contact in practice last week (per CBS Sports):
“I felt good. As the days go on, I’m going to get better and better. I felt stronger than I thought I would be,” Graham said. “This is just the first day so I have to be smart and I want to participate every day. As of now, I plan on playing September 1 against Youngstown State.”
Coming back from a knee injury is never easy, but Graham’s smaller frame (5’9″ and 195 pounds) may be a big benefit for him. The senior, a Walter Camp award nominee, has shown versatility in the past, improving his presence in the passing game to help minimize struggles for much-maligned QB Tino Sunseri. There’s a fair chance that Graham does it again this year, taking advantage of his 4.52 40-yard dash speed and quick feet to really display himself as the featured asset of the Pitt offense.
For 2012, Graham’s knee will be the deciding factor early on. If he’s at full strength come the end of camp, then he’ll jump in taking a large majority of the reps at halfback. If not, expect to see him splitting more time with Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell. Given his huge workload early on last year, that may not be a bad thing, either. In three of the first five games, he averaged 26 carries or more, a total that can wear down one back when he’s expected to really carry an offense. If he’s trading carries with Bennett and Shell, Graham may actually see more value out of less carries. Expect 17-19 rushes per game, but a more effective six or seven yards out of each of those. With questions about most of the other offensive pieces, Graham’s success could very well equate directly to Pitt’s respective success, too.