- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ray Graham still wears a brace on his right knee. He can't extend the way he'd like to just yet. Not everything comes by instinct.
The Pitt senior wants questions about his heath to end, but knows there is more work to be done. In the meantime, he's done a good job of disguising his deficiencies, rushing for 362 yards through four games, making him the second-leading rusher in the Big East.
"I feel like after a full year, once I start feeling good to where I'm not thinking about anything at all, it gives me no problems, I think that's when I'll take the brace off and keep things going," Graham, 11 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, told ESPN.com.
Graham figures to benefit most from the Panthers' bye this week, as the team continues to rebound from ugly season-opening losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati. Pitt's offense has rebounded since, combining for 1,163 yards in wins over Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb and setting a school record for yards in consecutive games in improving to 2-2.
Graham credits the turnaround to the bond the players have developed with new coach Paul Chryst. His faith in the players -- and particularly in the upperclassmen, Graham said — have helped Chryst win their trust and has given the team a fresh start.
"The seniors knew that this is not how we wanted to end our season, not on a bad rep," Graham said. "No matter if this was a first-year coach or a 10th-year coach, we know that the coaches trust in us and we trust in the coaches. So we knew that this is not the team that we were putting out there. We knew that we could do better. We could play better."
Neither Graham nor Chryst can pin a health percentage on the running back through four weeks, though both concede it is south of 100. Week by week, Graham notices plays in the film room in which he could have run differently. The sessions have become shorter as the season has carried on, as sure a sign of progress as any.
"Each week he clears some hurdles, so I'm looking forward to hopefully that progressing," Chryst said during Monday's Big East coaches teleconference. "Being around a full-speed Ray would be a pretty good thing."
Getting drilled low, planting his legs for a block -- it all feels natural now to Graham, who welcomes the newfound stability that has allowed him to average 113.2 all-purpose yards per game. He rushed for 71 yards in a season-opening loss to Youngstown State, a game no one was sure he'd play in until he carried the ball for a yard on the first play from scrimmage.
Graham can't remember if it happened on that play or during one of his 13 other carries that night, but his surgically-repaired knee took a hit during that game. When he got up without reservation, a mental hurdle had been cleared.
"It's those hits that you don't know, you don't know they're coming," Graham said. "And when you get hit like that, how you react, you didn't know you could react like that until you do it. So that's what I needed to do, needed to happen to me."
On the first play of Pitt's second drive Saturday, Graham broke free for a 78-yard touchdown run. He finished with 94 yards on eight carries and is well on pace for his first 1,000-yard season, something he was 42 yards shy of when going down in the ninth game of last season.
He is 53 yards away from becoming the No. 8 career rusher in school history, a spot currently occupied by Curtis Martin, the newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Graham understands the significance of climbing up a list that features names like Martin, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and Tony Dorsett, and Chryst has not shied away from bringing history into conversations with his players.
"If you're a player here, it's knowing you're a part of something that's bigger than you," Chryst said. "There's been greats before you; you need to take ownership of that and realize you're part of something bigger than that. Ray's obviously a talented back and has done a lot of good things, and he understands it and appreciates the history of the running backs at Pitt."