Oltmanns: Graham, Lewis should both be in backfield

By Alex Oltmanns

In my Pitt News training-camp blog, I wrote that if Pitt running back Ray Graham played for any… In my Pitt News training-camp blog, I wrote that if Pitt running back Ray Graham played for any other team in the Big East besides Pitt, or even rival West Virginia, he would probably start.

I was wrong.

After watching Graham run laps around Florida International on Saturday en route to a 277-yard performance — the second-best rushing output in school history ­— it’s evident that Graham could easily be a starter on every other Big East team.

Think of all the great Panther running backs over the years: Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, LeSean “Shady” McCoy, Dion Lewis, etc.

Only Dorsett ran for more yards in a single game than Graham did on Saturday, when he started in place of Lewis who sat out with an upper body injury.

But after the game, head coach Dave Wannstedt insisted that Lewis is still the team’s starter at tailback when he’s healthy again.

Whereas Lewis might have struggled  a little so far this season, averaging just three yards per carry, he’s still the same back who ran for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

He’s also the same player who was in the preseason Heisman Trophy talk, the same player who prompted all those T-shirts around campus that say “Shady Who?” on the front and Lewis’ No. 28 on the back.

With that being said, Graham needs to get more carries going forward, and after the game Wannstedt said he would give him more chances, but would keep Lewis as the starter. The team should take more of a running back-by-committee approach.

Graham was good as a freshman last year, showing his skills with long runs like his memorable 53-yarder against Notre Dame, but he came back this year even better.

He put on about 10 pounds of muscle in the summer and now has the ability to break tackles that he might not have last season. He’s always been a shifty runner, but he seems more willing to initiate contact this year, with the strength to get extra yardage after first contact.

The two backs are quickly turning into one of the best tandems in the country. The team needs to find a way to get them in the game at the same time, and I think it will.

Yes, I know that fullback Henry Hynoski is a valuable player to have in the backfield and is an NFL-caliber player, but with Lewis and Graham in the game at the same time opposing defenses will have a pretty tough time stopping them.

Just think back to Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams in the same backfield at Auburn, or Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas, and that will tell you all you need to know about how effective two running backs can be.

“The way we want to run the ball, I’ve gone through four tailbacks in a season,” Wannstedt said after Saturday’s game. “We’re going to need them both.”

Lewis should be healthy for this weekend’s game against Notre Dame and will start when the offense takes the field.

But if I were the Fighting Irish, I would plan for two running backs, because that’s what they’re going to be up against.