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Sophomore Graham takes advantage of new role

Laura Myers | Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pittsburgh sophomore running back Dion Lewis earned nearly every accolade a freshman could receive in 2009.

Among other honors, he was named the Big East offensive player of the year and a unanimous freshman All-American.

But when Lewis was unable to play Saturday against Florida International after being “banged up” in practice, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt gave his other sophomore running back, Ray Graham, his first start.

Graham took advantage of the opportunity, running for 277 yards on 29 carries. He scored three touchdowns, including a 79-yard run, and returned two kick returns for 78 yards. The performance earned him Big East player of the week honors.

“The running game with Ray Graham was as good of an effort as I have ever seen by an individual,” Wannstedt said in his post-game press conference Saturday.

Graham, who did not play in Pittsburgh’s opening game against Utah, now leads the team with 495 yards on 52 carries, an average of 9.5 yards per carry. He is first in the Big East with an average of 164 rushing yards per game, a figure that is third nationally. He also leads the country in all-purpose yards, with 236.33 per game.

“What they do offensively has been evolved around a running game that has featured Dion Lewis in the past,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in his Tuesday press conference. “Now it’s Ray Graham.”

Wannstedt said Lewis was held out of the Florida International game on purpose, but he could have played if necessary.

“I expect Dion to be fine this week,” he said in a Tuesday press conference. “Ray Graham and Dion Lewis will both practice and they will both play … We’re fortunate to have both those guys, and we’ll continue to play them both.”

The Irish defense allowed Boston College just five rushing yards Saturday in their 31-13 defeat of the Eagles. With Lewis and Graham in the game, the run defense will need to step up once again, Kelly said.

“Having both those backs obviously presents a great challenge,” he said.

As Lewis’ backup in 2009, Graham rushed 61 times for 349 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per carry.

“I think that Ray showed what kind of person he is, with how he handled everything with Dion last year having all the success week after week,” Wannstedt said. “There’s no more humble player on our team.”

Having two stars is both a positive and a negative, he said.

“They both want the ball,” Wannstedt said. “Whether you’re a receiver, a tight end or a running back, big-time guys want the ball. They feel that if they get the ball they can make a difference. That’s the way you want them to think. The great ones think that way. … Their relationship is good, but at the same time they’re both going to be anxiously wanting the football come Saturday.”