Does Ray Graham deserve to be Pitt's starting running back?
When Pitt kicked off its 2010 campaign, there was little doubt that Dion Lewis would be the featured back.
Three games into the season? Not so much.
Lewis was a second-tier Heisman candidate at the start of this season, and for good reason. He was fresh off a 1,799 yard season as a true freshman and was the top returning rusher in all of college football. The logic (which was clearly flawed) was that he had to be better heading into this season. It seems that it was forgotten that offensive lines really do matter.
Count me among those who bought into the Lewis hype. Much of Lewis' rushing attack was on the outside of the line and that is where Pitt was the strongest with upperclassmen at tackles in Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix. I correctly assessed that defenses would key in on Lewis more as a result of his breakout freshman season, but didn't account for the offensive line struggling so much. I figured that Lewis, while experiencing a slight dropoff in production this year, would still be the clear-cut choice at running back.
Man, was I wrong. Not only is Lewis on pace to have a much less productive season (he's currently on pace for only about 570 yards), he could be in danger of losing his starting spot. And while the offensive line may be a top reason for his struggles, then why is Ray Graham having so much success behind the same players? Lewis currently is averaging a meager 3.0 yards per carry to Graham's 9.3.
Even more disappointing is the fact that the big-play ability Lewis showed last season has eluded him so far this year. In three games he's still looking for his first 20-yard run while Graham has rushes of 40+ and 60+ in his two games. Graham's long runs both came late in the fourth quarters of games against New Hampshire and Miami, so it's fair to conclude that perhaps the defenses were worn down a bit. But offensive lines are also weaker and the running back still has to do the work to break free.
All of the talk about Lewis heading to the NFL for this season looks like it's going to be put on hold unless he can turn his season around. A dropoff like the one Lewis is experiencing, while odd, is not unprecedented. One need only look at another team in the conference to see a recent example of this happening. Louisville running back Victor Anderson ran for more than 1,000 yards, had five 100-yard games, and racked up nine touchdowns as a freshman back in 2008. He looked well on his way to stardom until 2009 when he had only 473 yards in eight games, missing a few due to injury. Anderson is still trying to get back on track but only has 114 yards through three games this season.
Lewis clearly has plenty of time not only in his career, but this season, to turn things around. Anderson's case doesn't prove Lewis will never get back on track, only that that players that look great one minute can look mediocre the next.
So what's the verdict? Should Pitt start Graham over Lewis? At this point, I say no. It's still early in the season and there have been whispers that Lewis may not be fully healthy. However, Graham has clearly earned the right to play more and offers a nice change of pace to keep defenses guessing. It makes sense for Pitt to play both right now and if the team is going to be successful this season, it's likely going to need production from both of them.