There are several unknowns about Pitt running back Ray Graham as we move closer to the start of fall practice.
1. How does he look running and cutting, less than a year after tearing his ACL?
2. How does that impact the running back rotation once the season begins?
Pitt coach Paul Chryst says he has never coached a running back coming off an ACL injury. These injuries are particularly difficult for running backs to immediately bounce back from because of everything involved when you carry the football -- not only the running, but the cutting and initial burst of speed that is required to be able to attack an open hole.
There are some running backs who show no lingering problems a year after a knee injury like this. There are others that need more time. One football Web site compiled a chart of NFL running backs, and how they fared the year before their ACL injury, and the year after. Nearly all had a decline in their production. Jamal Lewis and Frank Gore are notable exceptions.
We have no idea yet what category Graham will fall into. The good news is that Chryst expects Graham to be ready for the start of practice in August. He has no intentions of limiting the workload if Graham has been medically cleared to do everything.
"He’s progressing," Chryst said last month. "Now what that means, I’m not even trying to be tricky about it, you don’t know. But he is making progress and then you get to the point … the more you do are you feeling confident with it? We've had nothing that’s been discouraging."
I asked him about the idea that running backs have a tougher time coming back from ACL injuries than other players.
"I think it’s different for each person," he said. "I know what you’re saying as far as what they’re asked to do, but (Wisconsin receiver) Lee Evans had to make cuts. In the end, they all have to do the same thing. (Wisconsin tackle) Joe Thomas had to sink and stop, so I don’t know."
Will Chryst handle Graham differently because he is coming off such a major injury?
"You do what is best for that person and how does that align with what is best for this team?" Chryst said. "It’s so individual and not anything to do with other people."
Other people being the other running backs Pitt has in the backfield. Isaac Bennett had a terrific spring, and Rushel Shell comes in as one of the best recruits in the nation. Does having this luxury impact how Chryst is going to handle Graham, especially if he is worried about an extended workload and the wear and tear that may put on his senior back?
"I don’t think Ray’s approach has anything to do with anyone else," Chryst said. "Isaac did do some good things in the spring. Rushel Shell is a really good prospect. It could be a really good situation, but there’s a lot of unknowns right now. I think you truly do handle each guy differently, or independent of the other. Having the others doesn’t mean this is how we’re going to approach Ray."