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Graham OK playing Robin to Lewis' Batman

PITTSBURGH -- Ray Graham heard the question from fans around town and even via text messages from friends.

"When are you going to leave and go somewhere else?" they'd ask.

It was a logical query. After all, Graham came to Pitt as heralded tailback recruit last summer, only to discover that a superstar from his own class had beat him to the punch.

Dion Lewis, who enrolled during the winter while Graham was still in high school, ran for 1,799 yards as a freshman to win the Big East offensive player of the year award. Lewis carried 325 times in 2009, compared to just 61 attempts for Graham. So why wouldn't Graham want to transfer somewhere else?

The thing is, no one who was close to Graham had to ask him that question.

"Leaving never crossed my mind," he said. "I'm a competitor, and I just feel my chance is going to come."

While it's foolish to suggest that Graham will beat out Lewis as the Panthers' top ballcarrier, it would be similarly unwise to underestimate Graham's potential role in this year's offense. The Elizabeth, N.J., native turned heads this spring with his big-play ability. Pitt wants to find a way to use both runners.

"I think we've got a good 1-2 punch," head coach Dave Wannstedt said.

Graham actually averaged more yards per carry than Lewis (5.7 to 5.5), but he found himself far behind his classmate in both conditioning and understanding of the offense. Wannstedt said there were many times last year when the coaches would have liked to give Lewis a break and put Graham in the game, but they didn't want to risk putting the less advanced guy on the field in a close contest.

Now, though, Graham has had a full offseason to digest the playbook and work on his technique. He's also bulked up considerably, going from 170 pounds when he reported to campus to a sturdy 194 this spring.

"I'm not second-guessing myself now," he said. "When I hear the call on a play, I'm like, 'OK, I know that. I know my reads.' And now, I can run through people to get where I'm going."

Where Lewis excels in bouncing off tackles, Graham is more of a home-run threat with a great stutter step who thrives in open space. Picture them both in the backfield at the same time. Then picture a nervous defense.

"Teams can't just focus on one type of running back because we're both different kinds of runners," Lewis said. "That's going to help us out a lot."

There's no question who the No. 1 tailback is, but Graham is staying patient for his turn in that role. It could happen as soon as next year, since Lewis will be eligible to enter the 2011 draft because he attended prep school. Wannstedt has told him to have faith, because his time will come.

The Panthers don't have to worry, though, about Graham going somewhere else.

"I'm here to stay," he said. "Pitt is like my family."