Every day here at Your Best 11, we are counting down to the start of the regular season with our Top 150 players for 2012 season.
No. 115: Ray Graham, No. 1, Pittsburgh, Running Back
A year ago, Ray Graham was on his way to becoming a first- or second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Then, things changed against UConn, the game where Graham suffered a season-ending knee injury. Graham elected to come back for his final season of college and to play for new head coach, Paul Chryst. We know Chryst wants to run the football, and with a healthy Graham back, that should be the focus of the Pitt offense. Graham is a player who will likely end the season as one of the top players, but entering the 2012 season, the question about the knee still remains.
At 5'9" and just under 200 pounds, Ray Graham is not the biggest back in the nation. However, unlike other smaller backs, Graham is not the shifty burner who looks to hit the corner in a hurry.
The kid is a legitimate, between the tackles, hard-nosed running back. He pushes the pile when he gets into traffic, because he has some of the best leg drive in college football today. When you watch him run, his feet never stop moving. He is constantly churning his legs, keeping his shoulders square to the field and moving forward.
Aside from the drive that Graham brings to the game, his biggest and most largely unique trait is his ability and comfort catching passes out of the backfield. Before his injury Graham had caught 30 passes in Todd Graham's offense. However, Ray Graham's success catching the ball is not Todd Graham's doing; in 2010, he caught 24 passes as the backup running back. He has soft hands, runs great routes and is reliable in the passing game.
In his game, there are few, almost no, weaknesses. That said, he is coming off a severe knee injury, and that always offers question marks when it comes to recovery. Structurally, the knee might be ready to go come August, but mentally, Graham must get over the hurdle that has limited the progress of many a big time-player sidelined with a knee injury.
Another major aspect that could limit Graham's success in 2012 is the new offense. He is playing in his third scheme in as many seasons, and that is taxing on the mind. The good thing is that Chryst is a pro-style guy, so that will be a reversion to the ways of Dave Wannstedt.
I'm a big fan of what Paul Chryst brings to the table. He and Ray Graham are going to work well together from a production and philosophy standpoint. Graham should return to form, provided the knee is healthy, by fall camp, and that means heavy doses of running the ball, supplemented by screens and swing passes to get Graham into open space.
Chryst will be smart with Graham, give him more rest and not push the knee too hard. So expect Graham's numbers to reflect as much. The senior should be an All-Big East running back, although UConn's Lyle McCombs will be pushing for that top spot as well.
Look for Graham to hit the 1,000-yard mark, pushing for perhaps 1,300 on the season as he works himself back into shape and feels the game again. In addition to the yards on the ground, look for Chryst to get him the ball in the air to the tune of 20-25 passes.