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Pitt backfield will be time-share

| Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

Like most running backs, Ray Graham and Dion Lewis improve with the more carries they get.

They get loose, acquire a feel for the defense and find a rhythm.

"Once you start playing and get your feet going, it's better," Graham said. "You get the flow of the game going."

Graham, who is averaging 134 rushing yards per game, admitted it's difficult to rotate in the backfield, but said he and Lewis, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, will make it work.

"(Splitting) one and one series is definitely tough to get it going," Graham said. "But we will find some way to make it happen."

Lewis and Graham split time against Notre Dame in a 23-17 loss Saturday.

Graham finished with a season-low eight carries (for 44 yards) one week after gaining 277 yards against FIU.

Lewis, who sat out the FIU game, carried 13 times for 63 yards, averaging a season-best 4.8 yards per carry, against Notre Dame.

On Tuesday, Graham said each of the running backs needs at least double-digits in rushing attempts "to get us going." Graham said he would prefer each back play successive series.

"One quarter and one quarter. Two and one (series). Two and two (series)," he said. "If you are feeling good and you are flowing at the moment, let it happen like that."

For now, the ball distribution couldn't be any closer, as Pitt (2-3) prepares for its Big East opener at Syracuse (4-1, 1-0 Big East) on Saturday.

Lewis and Graham have each touched the football 71 times this season, on 60 carries and 11 receptions. But Graham has rushed for 536 yards with five touchdowns, while Lewis has gained 206 yards with two touchdowns.

Graham is the No. 9 leading rusher in the nation; Lewis is the No. 10 leading rusher in the Big East.

Running backs coach David Walker said it will remain a split backfield unless one of them gets on a roll during a game.

"We've got a real good situation," Walker said. "They are both getting touches. They are both being productive. We just keep moving forward.

"Ray Graham is doing a nice job, and Dion is doing a solid job. Dion just hasn't had the big runs like Ray has had."

Walker said long touchdown runs of 64 and 79 yards have inflated Graham's yards per carry average.

"That's great, and I'm glad he's had those runs," Walker said, "but let's not just bury Dion just yet."

Last season, Lewis was a workhorse with 325 carries — No. 2 in the nation — for 1,799 yards. Graham finished with 61 carries.

"Ray wasn't quite ready last year," Walker said. "Now he's ready, and they both play."

A split backfield is nearly unprecedented in Wannstedt's coaching career. Whether it was Rashaan Salaam or Raymont Harris with the Bears or Lamar Smith or Ricky Williams with the Dolphins, Wannstedt-coached teams have always employed a featured back.

Even when Pitt had two future NFL running backs in the same backfield in 2007-08, LeSean McCoy got the vast majority of the carries over Larod Stephens-Howling by nearly a four-to-one margin.

There are a few examples of a running back platoon under Wannstedt — none of them ending well.

In Wannstedt's first year at Pitt (2005), Stephens-Howling, Rashaad Jennings and Raymond Kirkley shared time. The Panthers went 5-6 and didn't reach a bowl game.

As for the NFL, Curtis Enis, Edgar Bennett and others comprised the Bears' backfield in 1998 and Sammy Morris and Travis Minor split duties for the Dolphins in 2004. In both seasons, Wannstedt ended up either resigning or getting fired.

Additional Information:

Sharing the load

Ray Graham and Dion Lewis will remain in a time-share backfield. A look at their season stats:

Dion Lewis : 60 carries, 206 yards (3.4 average), 2 TDs; 11 receptions, 89 yards

Ray Graham : 60 carries, 536 yards (8.9 average), 5 TDs; 11 receptions, 111 yards

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