Football: Panthers have two options at running back

By Adam Littman

Questions about who could replace running back LeSean McCoy were answered fairly quickly this… Questions about who could replace running back LeSean McCoy were answered fairly quickly this year, as freshman Dion Lewis carried the offense the first two weeks of the season.

In Pitt’s 38-3 win over Youngstown State to open the season and 54-27 win at Buffalo the next week, Lewis rushed a combined 44 times for 319 yards and four touchdowns. He also had eight catches for 56 yards and a touchdown in those two games.

“Nobody thought Dion would do what he’s done this season,” tight end Dorin Dickerson said.

While Lewis hasn’t eclipsed 100 yards since week two, he also hasn’t rushed for less than 79 yards in a game.

And now it looks like Pitt has another option at running back.

Last week at Louisville, the Panthers made prolific use of their other freshman running back, Ray Graham, in their 35-10 victory.

“I’ve never been a split-time backs kind of coach, but we’re going to play both,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said after the win. “We’ve got two backs that can play and get us yards.”

Graham rushed 12 times for 75 yards and a touchdown. Coming into the Louisville game, Graham had a combined 12 rushes for 48 yards and two touchdowns in Pitt’s first four games.

With Pitt up 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers ran the ball with Graham six straight times and nine times during the 12-play drive. Graham capped off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run.

“That gives me a lot of confidence in him,” Wannstedt said.

If the Panthers continue to split carries between Lewis and Graham, it will keep both running backs fresh throughout the game. Lewis will continue to start, but now the Panthers have the option to bring in Graham for a few plays, or even an entire series, to let Lewis relax and stay strong for the second half.

Plus, both are true freshmen. They’ve never played this long of a season or against this level of talent. Splitting time can help the two backs not flame out as the Panthers dive into the second half of their schedule.

Of course, it’s not just the running backs that have Pitt’s run game excelling, and Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe took note of that after last Friday’s game.

“[The Panthers] have a good offensive line and they do a good job of running the football,” Kragthorpe said after Friday’s game. “I think one of the keys for them is their two tight ends because both of those guys are physical blockers. They also have flexibility. Frank [Cignetti Jr.], their offensive coordinator, does a nice job of moving those guys around with motions and shifts and playing those guys all over the place.”

In just two years at Pitt, McCoy scored 36 touchdowns, won the Big East Rookie of the Year award in 2007 and was a two-time all-Big East selection.

Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to find someone to replace that, but it looks like the Panthers have two running backs up for the challenge.