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October 3, 2010

Wannstedt: Lewis will start next week

Can you bench a running back who gained nearly 1,800 yards a year ago, even if another player has been more productive, more explosive, and simply better in the current season?

That's the question facing Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt as he decides how to deploy sophomore running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. But for Wannstedt, there seems to be no uncertainty about who will be in the starting lineup when the Panthers (2-2) play at Notre Dame next Saturday.

"[Lewis is] starting. Yes, he is," Wannstedt said after Pitt beat Florida International 44-17 at Heinz Field on Saturday.

Wannstedt may appreciate the simple things in life, but this decision isn't that easy. Graham nearly set an all-time Pitt record with 277 yards rushing against FIU on Saturday. That was his third 100-yards performance in three games this season, following an even 100 yards against Miami and 115 against New Hampshire.

Graham leads Pitt with 592 yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries in three games, averaging 164 yard per game and nearly 10 yards per carry.

Lewis sat out the FIU game with a shoulder injury, but his absence made him only slightly less effective than he had been in the first three games of the season. Against Utah, New Hampshire, and Miami, the sophomore back rushed for a total of 143 yards and two touchdowns on 47 carries.

By comparison, Lewis gained 194 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries in Pitt's 2009 regular-season finale against Cincinnati.

Some things are undeniable: Lewis has struggled to get rolling this season, while Graham has been Pitt's best running back. The difficulty lies in deciding whether to go with the current hot hand or the player who was the driving force behind Pitt's 10-3 campaign a year ago.

"We just go out there and play," Graham said after Saturday's game. "Whatever Coach wants out there, me or Dion will go out there and get it done. Whoever's name is called, just make it happen."

In truth, the designation of "starter" doesn't carry as much relevance at running back as it does at other positions, since Pitt has used Graham and Lewis whenever both were healthy. Graham even had more carries than Lewis in the Miami game despite not starting. As such, Wannstedt's in-game plan of attack could be to use whichever running back producing, while still keeping Lewis as the starter so as to limit talk of benching the reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Year.

"I'm not going to stand here and say, 'Now we've got two good tailbacks;' we knew we had two good tailbacks," Wannstedt said Saturday night. "We'll be fortunate to be able to use them both next week against Notre Dame."

When told of Wannstedt's proclamation that Lewis will be Pitt's starter in South Bend next week, Graham played the part of a good teammate.

"Disappointed? Not at all. I'm not going to be disappointed at all. Dion is a great back and I'm a good back, too, so we'll just go out there and play.

"I just want to go out there and just play. Whatever I can do to help the team, that's what I want to do. Whether I start or not, when my name is called, I just go out there and have fun and be productive.






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