We move from a position of dread to one of excitement. Pitt, over the past few years, has produced several NFL running backs, from LaRod Stephens-Howling to LeSean McCoy and now Dion Lewis. And yet despite all these changes, Pitt still manages to find yet another NFL caliber running back.
This year's starter is Ray Graham, who was well on his way to a 1000-yard and possibly, an All-American season before an ACL tear against UConn ended those hopes prematurely. But he's back for another go around and Pitt fans can only hope that he is good to go for the 2012 season. It's possible - even probable, that he won't be the same as he has been, but with the stable of running backs Pitt has this season, the Panthers should manage just fine.
Despite the talent in the backfield, Graham will definitely receive the majority of the carries, barring something unforeseen. His ability to shift, miss tackles, and go for big yardage has been proven in games against Division I talent. This is not to say that Isaac Bennett or Rushel Shell aren't also capable of the same thing, but Ray has already proven he can do these things. I still keep going back to that amazing 53-yard run (go to 1:04) Ray had against Notre Dame back in 2009. From that point on, despite Dion taking all the headlines in 2009, Ray had proven he was just as valuable an asset to Pitt football. And then, the South Florida game happened and he exploded onto the national scene. As much as I hate LeBron James, when he starts talking about you, you've done something right.
Graham will get the majority of the carries, but both Bennett and Shell will get their fair share as well. Bennett emerged on the scene towards the end of the season last year and then really impressed the new coaching staff in spring practice enough to be given the #2 spot on the depth chart at running back. A three-star running back out of Oklahoma, he was praised for being a strong, power running back. He showed that in Pitt's final three regular season games against Louisville, West Virginia, and Syracuse.
Then there's the player Pitt fans have been waiting to arrive on campus. Rushel Shell, one of the top recruits in the 2012 class, is just six weeks away from putting on that Pitt jersey for the first time. Considered an elusive, workhorse type back, Shell will have to use fall camp and the season to show the coaching staff that he can be the starter in 2013. Bennett does have a year up on Shell, but there's a reason Shell ran for the most career yards in WPIAL history - talent. Time will tell, though, whether Shell is ultimately a success at Pitt or not. But for now, it's nice to have him on the roster.
After the "Big Three", Pitt has three other running backs on the roster. Corey Davis, who saw some playing time throughout the season, Malcolm Crockett, who redshirted last season, and Desmond Brown, a walk-on from last season. It's hard to imagine any of these guys seeing a significant amount of playing time unless one of the aforementioned guys go down with an injury. But if you had to look at one, it might be Davis, who has some game experience. Don't discount Crockett entirely, though, since he was actually the most highly regarded of the three running backs that came to Pitt last season (Crockett, Davis, and Bennett).
It's hard to not imagine what Chryst can do with Pitt's backfield since he oversaw a lethal rushing attack at Wisconsin. In 2010, Montee Ball was four yards away from giving the Badgers three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. Ball then went on to rush for nearly 2,000 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. It makes you wonder what he can do with Graham, Bennett, and Shell. If the offensive line holds up, watch out.
Here are some keys for the running backs for 2012:
Find the right balance: As I've been saying, Graham will get the most carries in 2012 unless his knee hasn't healed properly. But it wouldn't be smart to burn him out in the first few games and then watch his production decrease for the remainder of the season. Chryst will have to find the right number of carries to give each player in each game. Going with the hot hand is a possibility as well, but that's not always the best option.
Hope Ray Graham's knee holds up: Among other things, every Pitt fan's eyes will be on Graham's right knee and until he shows that he has completely healed, it'll still be running in the back of everyone's mind. How is the knee doing? Could he tear another ligament in his knee? Will Ray be able to run for the entire season? Bennett and Shell are talented and fully capable of being the #1 running back, but we all saw how Pitt's rushing attack suffered after Graham went down. It was never the same weapon as it had been in the beginning half of the season. Yes, Bennett has a full year of experience under his belt and Pitt didn't have someone with the talent of Shell on the roster last season, but neither have enough game experience to make us feel comfortable without Graham.
If Pitt is going to have a successful season, Pitt's main backs should try to reach the targeted numbers below, in my opinion:
|Ray Graham||Isaac Bennett||Rushel Shell|
Pitt doesn't need one player to become a 1st team All-American, but rather, a committee that is considered one of the best in the country. They certainly have the talent to do so and the schedule isn't too difficult. 2012 could very well be a banner year for Pitt running backs.
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