- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Pitt has a grand tradition of rushing the ball. New coach Paul Chryst has produced some of the best rushing seasons in Wisconsin history.
The fit seems perfect.
But the natural question, of course, is whether the Panthers will be able to get back to their smashmouth roots in Year 1. There are a few unknowns that complicate the answer.
1. What can we expect out of Ray Graham? Graham would have easily topped 1,000 yards last season had he not torn his ACL in Week 9. He will not be available for the spring, but all indications are that he will be healthy in time for the start of the season. Graham said on his Twitter account Feb. 13 that he already has begun running. Will he bounce back and be the player we saw last season, running in and out of cuts with such ease he made would-be tacklers look silly? Or will he be hesitant and a step slower? Every player reacts differently to ACL surgery, and it sometimes takes a full two years before a player is back to himself. Even if he is less than 100 percent, Graham should still be the best player on offense when he returns.
2. What about the offensive line? One of the most scrutinized units on the team, the Panthers were definitely better at run blocking than pass blocking. But this group has got to play better overall, be more consistent and stay healthy if this team is going to have success rushing the ball on a consistent basis. Getting Chris Jacobson back helps. But this team loses three senior starters and is strapped for depth. It also will be slightly smaller up front than the groups Wisconsin fields. Pitt will be about 20 pounds lighter per man up front than the Badgers' projected unit.
3. How about depth at running back? The Panthers should be in good shape here with Isaac Bennett, Corey Davis and Rushel Shell. They provide the potential to take some of the rushing load off Graham. Chryst has had workhorse backs at Wisconsin, and he also has had backs split reps. Most famously, Wisconsin nearly had three different players rush for at least 1,000 yards in 2010 as James White had 1,052 yards, John Clay had 1,012 and Montee Ball had 996. Last season, Ball and White had more than 100 carries each, but it was Ball who had 1,923 yards.
Also, keep in mind that Wisconsin failed to have a 1,000-yard rusher just once in the seven years Chryst served as offensive coordinator. That happened in 2008. Pitt broke its four-year streak with a 1,000-yard rusher last season. With Graham and a talented group of backs returning, you have to think getting a 1,000-yard rusher will absolutely happen.
But having a 1,000-yard back does not always mean a team rolls up yards on the ground with ease. For all of the rushing tradition at Pitt, the Panthers have not exactly torn up the nation in rushing offense. Going back to 1999, the most yards Pitt averaged on the ground was 180.3, back in 2009. That ranked No. 34 in the nation. Only twice during that time span -- in 2009 and 2010 -- did Pitt finish in the top half of the nation in rushing offense.
Contrast that with Chryst's time at Wisconsin. Going back to his first year as coordinator in 2005, Wisconsin has never finished lower than No. 37 in the nation in rushing offense. That happened in his first two years there, and they were the only two years the Badgers failed to average more than 200 yards a game on the ground.
There is no doubt Chryst will want to try to establish the run with the Panthers. He is smart enough to know that is where the strength of his team is, at least headed into this season. But it will be interesting to see how long it takes before the Panthers become a team that can be among the best in the nation in rushing the ball.