Ray Graham: Pittsburgh Panthers RB Should Not Be Rushed Back

Chris BaccumContributor IIAugust 23, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Ray Graham #1 of the Pittsburgh Panthers celebrates his rushing touchdown against the South Florida Bulls during the game on September 29, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Panthers star running back Ray Graham had his 2011 season cut short when he tore his ACL against Connecticut in late October, and before the injury, Graham was the nation's second-leading rusher, averaging 134.1 yards per game.

Now it is being reported by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy that Graham is “unlikely to play” in the team’s season-opening game against Youngstown State on Sept. 1.

Pitt RB Ray Graham "unlikely to play" opener vs. Youngstown State, sources tell @espn es.pn/NFJxhr

— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) August 22, 2012

During fall camp, Graham has been limited in what he can do on the field, and with him most likely sitting out, it will be sophomore Isaac Bennett who will get the start.

Last season, when Bennett took over the starting duties for Graham, he rushed for 237 yards on 58 carries, caught 14 passes for 88 yards out of the backfield and scored three total touchdowns as a freshman in just five games.

One reason to have Graham sit out at least the first game is due to Pittsburgh's difficult early-season schedule. After the Youngstown State game, they travel on the road to face Cincinnati just five days later, and after that they host No. 16 ranked Virginia Tech nine days later. 

The experience of Bennett seeing action in five games definitely makes the decision to rest Graham's knee one more week easier to tolerate.

Plus, if Bennett can keep up his 4.1 yards-per-carry average that he had last season, then Pittsburgh can be confident in having Graham eased back into the lineup.

That could be the best decision for the Pittsburgh coaching staff, because they know that Bennett is capable of doing, so they have the luxury to bring Graham back into the lineup slowly and not risk a setback in his recovery.

Further down on the depth chart is highly touted true freshman Rushel Shell, who was a top-100 recruit across the board from the major recruiting services and is the all-time rushing leader in Pennsylvania high school history with 9,078 yards. However, it is undetermined if he will redshirt the season or not.

Pitt may need him ready to go if Graham is unable to play early in the season, and by being that highly thought-of out of high school then they should get Shell on the field and play right away to help the team.

Getting him some reps against Youngstown State to get the feel for a real college football game is a good place to start.

Having Graham play against Youngstown State should not make any difference if in terms of getting the win, but the long-term health of his knee should be the main concern.

However, if his ACL is slow to heal and Graham starts missing more games then it could be an issue, as their running back depth is not the deepest. Bennett has the experience from last season and is capable, but behind him is Shell, who has not taken a real-game college football snap.

After that, Pittsburgh is really thin, with sophomore Corey Davis having only 17 career carries and redshirt freshman Malcolm Crockett having no experience in a real game.

So they need to get Graham back in the lineup as soon as possible, but not too quickly, as they want him completely healthy.

Pittsburgh is likely playing it safe by not having Graham for the first week, and that would give his knee a little bit more time to heal. The best thing for Pitt to do would have Graham rest and then have his carries gradually increase until he is 100 percent.