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August 21, 2011Ray Graham loves the game of football. A lot.
He loves it so much that even though his work has been limited this training camp, he still tries to get on the field.
"I always want to get out. Even sometimes, I try to sneak out there to get in," Graham said with a sly smile.
The junior running back won't have to do any sneaking this fall. Since the departure of Dion Lewis this off season, Graham will be the featured back and will have a huge role in Pitt's new offense.
"You just know you have a bigger responsibility to take on," Graham said. "You know being that back you have to be more of a leader. Not saying I wasn't a leader last year because I think I was, but now, everything's on you because you're the No. 1 back."
Graham has shown his raw talent and ability in the past two years playing the backup role behind Lewis. As a freshman, he rushed for 349 yards on 61 carries and scored four times.
Graham truly came into his own as a sophomore, with 148 carries and 922 yards for eight touchdowns. That included a 277-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida International, the second-highest single-game rushing total in Pitt history behind Tony Dorsett.
Graham also averaged over five yards per carry in each of his first two seasons and established himself as a consistent home-run threat. He's shown the same ability this camp, like when he outran defenders last Tuesday morning for a 60-yard score.
This offseason has been different for the junior running back, though. Knowing that he'll be the starter, Graham showed even more dedication watching "extra film on top of extra film" and studying the new offense.
At times last year, Graham said he found himself lost and asking questions about what to do. This season, he knows everything about his role, and he even quizzes the freshman running backs about the offense while they're standing on the sideline.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "I really know the offense, not like as a quarterback, but I know the offense really well."
Graham is also comfortable as a pass-catcher. He caught 24 passes for 213 yards and two scores last season, and he has shown even more ability during camp, including a 40-yard extended fingertip touchdown catch on a wheel route last week.
"We've got backs that have good hands, and we can get out there," he said. "Coaches like our match-ups one-on-one with defenders."
Graham looks and carries himself like a completely different player this season, and his teammates have noticed.
Redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri said Graham's maturity level from last season to now is "night and day," and added that the junior has become a complete running back. Pitt's quarterback also expects the team's top running back to create mismatches for defenses all season.
"The biggest thing is when's he's in the backfield, you don't know if he's going to swing out, if he's going to run," Sunseri said. "It puts a lot of pressure on defenses. As soon as you have a back that can get out and he can get on linebackers really quick, it puts a lot of pressure on them too."
After almost reaching 1,300 yards of total offense last year, Graham is poised to have a breakout season. He transformed his body and mind in the offseason and appears ready to contribute in a major way.
With this offense looking to run 80-plus plays per game, the junior will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. There's no limit to what this offense can do, and in turn, there's no limit to what Graham can accomplish.
"I'm going to go hard until I drop," he said. "I'm going to go all out until I can't go any more."
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