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Pitt Panthers begin the process of replacing their top running back

Pitt football coach Todd Graham speaks confidently about freshman running backs Corey Davis, Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett and how they will help ease the loss of Ray Graham.

"People will be surprised to see how well they will do," he said.

Then, reality strikes him: The Panthers need experience in their backfield when they meet Cincinnati on Saturday at Heinz Field, with first place in the Big East at stake.

Despite the presence of the three freshmen from Graham's first Pitt recruiting class, expect senior Zach Brown to get the majority of the carries against Cincinnati.

"I am very, very thankful for Zach Brown, I can tell you that," Todd Graham said. "I tell him that every day."

Pitt has begun the difficult process of carrying on without Ray Graham — its best player and perhaps the best in the conference — and Brown is at the center of it.

After spending the past four seasons at Wisconsin, where he became buried under the Badgers' backfield depth, Brown took his degree in history and enrolled in Pitt's School of Education. He is pursuing a Master's in Health and Physical Activity.

"I am a man of faith," he said, "and I asked God to guide me to where it will be in my best interests and I came to Pitt."

Football, however, is far more than an afterthought. Playing time was a major lure for Brown, who also had opportunities at Miami (Fla.) and Miami (Ohio). Graham was the only running back on scholarship at Pitt, and the fit was natural.

Even before Ray Graham's injury, Todd Graham pointed to Brown as a leader, someone other players tend to follow.

Brown is that in the locker room, but he had only 29 carries for 99 yards and seven receptions in the first seven games.

That's more of a testament to Ray Graham's productivity — coaches didn't want to take carries from him — and less about Brown's ability.

Actually, Pitt uncovered Brown's receiving skill after Graham left the Connecticut game. He had only 20 receptions in four seasons at Wisconsin, but he led Pitt with nine for 84 yards against the Huskies.

Pitt is counting on Brown to do better than the 2.5-yard rushing average (12 for 30) he recorded against Connecticut.

"You can't replace a player the caliber of Ray Graham," Todd Graham said.

But he added, "We will run our offense as we run it."

Safety Andrew Taglianetti said he and his teammates are eager for the challenge of playing for a BCS bowl bid, but he acknowledges the difficulty of the situation.

"It's always tough to lose a player like Ray," he said, "not only for his football-playing ability. He is one of those guys in the locker room that everyone looks up to.

"It's going to be interesting to see who is going to step up and really take the reins, whether it's Tino (Sunseri) or Zach Brown or one of the other running backs."

Brown has been instrumental in aiding the development of Davis, Bennett and Crockett.

"Zach has his little puppies with him (at practice)," the coach said.

Davis might play more than the others as Brown's backup — he is the only one with carries (three for 8 yards) — but Bennett or Crockett likely will lose his redshirt season.

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