By the numbers, Pitt's running back situation appears to be fairly clear-cut. Ray Graham has more than twice as many yards than Dion Lewis, despite the fact that both backs have carried the ball the same number of times. Graham has been the more productive and explosive back through five games, while Lewis has struggled.
But Pitt running backs coach David Walker says that it would be wise to remember that Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards as a freshman in 2009.
"Let's not bury Dion just yet," Walker said this week.
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Still, the temptation is strong. Graham is averaging 8.9 yards per carry and 134 yards per game, while Lewis is putting up 3.4 yards per carry and 51.5 yards per game. Both players have recorded 60 carries and 11 receptions; Graham has 650 yards of total offense, and Lewis has 311.
"Ray's doing a nice job," Walker said. "I've got no complaints about Ray Graham and how he's playing. And Dion is doing a solid job. Like I said, we've got two guys. Dion just hasn't had the big runs like Ray has had, so when you look at the stats and add an 80-yard run and a 50-yard run, the stats are going to really jump. But [Lewis] is playing well, too.
"It's not like we have one guy that's not playing good and the other guy is playing good; we have too guys that are playing solid and playing good. So, even though I know what the numbers look like, we'll just keep moving forward."
Walker is right: Graham has gained a lot of yardage on long runs. 16 of his 60 carries have gained 10 yards or more, and he has picked up 396 yards on those 16 long runs. By contrast, Lewis has just four runs of 10 yards or more. Lewis has also been stopped more frequently, with 13 runs that gained no yards or lost yardage; Graham has been stopped for no gain or less seven times.
At least part of Lewis's struggles could be attributed to a lack of opportunities. He carried the ball 25 times in the season-opener against Utah, but in his subsequent three games - he sat out the Florida International game - he has recorded 10, 12, and 13 carries. Last season, Lewis's season-low in carries was 18, and he only had one other game when he recorded fewer than 20 carries.
Lewis and Graham have shared the ball in three games this season, and neither has logged more than 14 carries in any of those games. For almost any running back, the key to mounting a productive rushing effort is continued access to the ball; limited carries usually means limited effectiveness.
"As the game goes on and the flow of the game gets going, once you get the ball a couple times, you get the feel of the defense," Graham said this week. "It's different from watching; you can watch them, but after you play them, it's different. Once you start playing and get your feet going, it's better."
Graham estimated that the minimum number of carries a running back needs in order to get rolling in a game would be "definitely double digits." But that total is difficult to achieve when the coaching staff alternates series for Lewis and Graham. Against Notre Dame, the two sophomore backs played every other series for almost the entire game.
"It's tough, because sometimes you go out there and you'll go three-and-out or something like that; that happened a couple times," Lewis said this week. "So I'd say you need a couple series, but at the same time, I'm not going to complain. Ray's a great running back and he deserves to be in there."
Graham is playing like a great back this season, but Lewis still isn't too far removed from his highly-decorated freshman season. He was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts in 2009 and entered 2010 as the nation's leading returning rusher. So while Graham has been Pitt's top offensive weapon so far this year, the coaching staff hasn't forgotten who held that title a year ago.
"A guy like Dion Lewis has a ton of capital built up because of previous performances," Walker said. "Now it's just getting him to break a big one, make one guy miss a tackle and go for 60. We just haven't got that yet. Guys have made some tackles on him one-on-one, we had a couple seams on Saturday that closed up a little bit quicker or he might have had a couple big runs. It will come.
"He's being patient, he's doing all the right things, he's not forcing runs. Everything else will take care of itself."