Graham's first five games constitute a record start
Ray Graham's 734 yards rushing represent the best five-game start to a season in Pitt history.
Consider that for a moment.
Curtis Martin didn't do it. LeSean McCoy fell short; so did Dion Lewis. Not even Tony Dorsett could match it.
Pitt's junior running back thrust himself into the college football spotlight -- and Heisman Trophy conversation -- Thursday night with his dominant performance against previously undefeated No. 16 South Florida in front of a national television audience.
ESPN analyst and former NFL running back Craig James said Graham, who entered the week eighth in the nation in rushing, has the look of a Heisman candidate.
"Talent-wise, he is in the Heisman class," James said, "but his team, they have to win out. That's the reality of it."
Pitt hasn't had a Heisman winner since Dorsett in 1976, when he set the Pitt single-season rushing record with 2,150 yards. But Dorsett's best five-game starts (717 in 1973 and 665 in 1976) fall short of what Graham has accomplished this season.
James was part of the ESPN broadcast team Thursday at Heinz Field and said he was impressed by Graham's improved running style.
"The thing I thought he overcame was his tendency to wiggle too much," James said, "to try to dance sideways. He made cuts that were decisive.
"He spun hard and strong with five or six (South Florida) jerseys around him. Anyone can spin, but few can spin with power and continue a northward advance."
After the game, in which he rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns, Graham was asked whether he considered himself a big-time player.
For a moment, he looked slightly embarrassed.
"Yes, I feel as if I am. Yes, sir," he said.
Then he added, "I worked for it, so I feel as though I am."
None of this, of course, surprises Chet Parlavecchio.
Not Graham's performance against South Florida. Not his humble nature afterward. Not his rise to prominence.
Parlavecchio coached Graham at Elizabeth (N.J.) High School.
"He was one of the greatest backs I have ever seen in New Jersey high school football," said Parlavecchio, who coached schoolboys in that state for 23 years before joining the Tennessee Titans this year as a special teams assistant.
Parlavecchio said Graham always had a hunger to succeed -- sometimes to a fault.
One day in August 2007, Elizabeth was scrimmaging Don Bosco Prep, a 13-time state champion and the standard by which New Jersey teams measure themselves.
The game didn't count. But it did to Graham.
He rushed for 167 yards in the first half, Elizabeth had stood up well against its mighty opponent, and Parlavecchio was planning to rest his starters after halftime.
"We're in the locker room, and Raymond comes up to me and says, 'Coach, I've been waiting all year for this game. Give me one more series. I want to get 200 yards,' " Parlavecchio said.
He knew better but couldn't resist. "How do you look a kid in the eye and say no?" he said.
It quickly became a decision Parlavecchio regretted.
"On the first play of the second half, a guy falls on him and cracks his collarbone," he said. "I want to take a gun and shoot myself."
Graham missed much of the season but returned for the final four games and totaled 750 yards and 12 touchdowns. The following season, he sat out the fourth quarter of six games but still rushed for 1,592 yards.
Graham, whose father, Raymond, was an All-Big Ten running back at Purdue, had impressive physical skills, which were a blessing and a curse for the younger Graham, Parlavecchio said.
"Things came too easy for him," he said. "At times, (the expectations) became too cumbersome."
Elizabeth won the state title in 2006 when Graham was a sophomore, but it lost the second game that season because, Parlavecchio said, "People were freelancing too much.
"Raymond was one those guys," he said. "Raymond was sort of not having great practices. A lot if it had to do with the people in town telling him how wonderful he was. His work ethic wasn't where I wanted it."
Parlavecchio, a former Penn State linebacker, said he had to act.
"The (Joe) Paterno in me said we better saddle this up real quick," he said.
Parlavecchio benched Graham and three other players for the next game, which Elizabeth won, 14-0.
"Raymond came in (after the game) and didn't know whether to smile or cry," he said. "But I got the point across. We were going to be a team."
Reinstated, Graham went on to gain 1,290 yards, but Parlavecchio said he believes Elizabeth would not have won a state title had he not benched Graham.
"I think that was the best moment of Raymond's life," he said.
Graham was one of the most highly recruited players in New Jersey, but Parlavecchio was dismayed when Penn State rejected him.
"That's where I wanted him to go. (Assistant coach) Tom Bradley loved him. But Raymond did not have the SAT scores, and Joe (Paterno) was adamant about not recruiting kids who didn't have the scores," Parlavecchio said. "He didn't care how good they were."
Rutgers secondary coach Jeff Hafley, then a Pitt assistant, was relentless in his efforts to land Graham and took an interest in his academics, which quickly improved.
Graham turned down Clemson, Notre Dame and others, mostly because of the bond he formed with Hafley, who will meet up with his former player Saturday when Pitt visits Rutgers.
It might be the last time they meet on the field. Graham, in his third season at Pitt, could declare himself eligible for the NFL draft after the season.
"He will be ready," James said. "In the NFL, you have to run through arm tackles, and I saw that from Ray. He's a complete back."Additional Information:
Ray Graham's 734 rushing yards are the most after five games in Pitt history for an average of 146.8.
Tony Dorsett set the season record in 1976 when he rushed for 2,150 yards. Dorsett had 717 after five games in his freshman season of 1973.
Graham, who is averaging 146.8 yards per game, must average 202.4 yards over the final seven regular-season games to break Dorsett's record, or 177.1 yards, assuming the Panthers reach a bowl game.