Don't forget about Pitt's Lewis
Thursday, October 07, 2010
By Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pitt's season is only four games old but Dion Lewis has already fallen from a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate to the forgotten man in the backfield.

Not only has he fallen out of the discussion for the Heisman, but there also is a segment of the Panthers' fan base who are calling for him to lose his starting job to Ray Graham, who had a 277-yard, 3-touchdown performance Saturday in a 44-17 win against Florida International.

[IMGR][/IMGR]Graham, who started because Lewis was out with a shoulder injury, has made the most of his opportunities with three consecutive 100-yard games. Lewis, on the other hand, started the first three games and has yet to run for a 100 yards.

Graham is the nation's third-leading rusher (164 yards per game), leads the country in all-purpose rushing yards (236.33), is averaging 9.5 yards per carry and his rushing total against Florida International was the most by a Division I-A player this year.

But after the game, coach Dave Wannstedt made it clear that Lewis still is the starter despite his slow start this season -- a 47.7 per game average and a 3 yard per-carry average.

And there is a good reason for that. Lewis is coming off one of the best seasons by a Pitt running back with 1,799 yards rushing and was named the Big East offensive player of the year.

Wannstedt said Wednesday that it really doesn't matter who starts because both backs will play, and he'll go with whoever is having the better game. He called it a good problem to have and said that the Panthers would be a lot better off if they had the same issue -- two very good players vying for playing time -- at every position.

But beyond that, the rotation works because the two tailbacks are friends, root for each other and more important, complement each other perfectly. Lewis is a hard-nosed inside runner, and Graham is fast and shifty.

"We really don't have a rotation. We've tried to go every three series and see what happens, but we're going to play the hot hand," Wannstedt said. "They are competing at practice. I wish I had depth and talent to compete at every position like we have at tailback, but those two guys are competing and they are doing it right. But there is no plan design for one guy to get X amount of carries over the other.

"[It is a good change of pace] because when Dion is carrying the ball, you better have your mouthpiece in, and when Ray is in there you better have your shoe laces tied."

Lewis said his shoulder is much better and he is ready to play Saturday. He added that sitting out was probably good on two fronts: It gave his injury a chance to heal properly and it gave him a chance to watch Graham and what he was doing to be successful.

But Lewis laughed when asked about a "running back controversy," because he said his approach is very similar to Graham's in that if one is doing well, then the team is doing well and winning games.

"I was really happy for Ray, he had a great game and I always support him," Lewis said. "At the same time, I wanted to be out there running around a little bit, too. But we won and that is the most important thing.

"[We complement each other well] because we're both different kinds of running backs and we both have a lot of talent. But I think we're both able to take a little pressure off the other because teams can't just focus on one style or the other, so we can help each other a lot."

If it sounds like Lewis is toeing the company party line, understand this -- he is not. He and Graham truly are friends, and they do root for each other to do well and believe that they benefit greatly from the other's presence.

But make no mistake, Lewis is like any other competitor and he clearly understands that he needs to improve his game in order to remain not only the starter, but also a player who splits time with Graham.

That's why he is so eager to get back on the field Saturday against Notre Dame -- it is a big stage and he wants to put on a good show to remind everyone that he still is a pretty good running back.

"It has been two long weeks since I've been out there so I'll definitely be ready to play," Lewis said. "I just need to get a little bit of my swagger back, I just need to get into a rhythm and I'm just so anxious to play right now, hopefully it will come.

"But I'm not going to get out there and get out of character and try to make big plays all the time. I'm just going to stick with the game plan, get 4 or 5 yards at a time and know that the big one is going to come, so I'll just stay patient. I have to go out there and not try and force things."

But he does plan to use the things he learned watching Graham run against Florida International.

"He has been more aggressive than I have at hitting holes and stuff," Lewis said. "So I took note of that, and it is something I've tried to work on this week at practice. Like I said, I'm ready to get back out there."