No true freshman made a bigger impact last season than Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis, who became the first Big East player to win both the league's rookie of the year and offensive player of the year awards since Michael Vick.
Yet, if you asked Pitt coaches and observers this time a year ago who their best freshman running back would be, you probably would have gotten a mixed reaction. Like Lewis, Ray Graham came from a New Jersey high school. Graham was rated slightly higher than Lewis by most recruiting services.
Lewis, though, had the upper hand in one main area: maturity. Not only was Lewis highly focused, he enrolled in January and got a head start on his college initiation, while Graham arrived in the summer as a typical, confused teenager.
"Ray came in here with a lot of talent," Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He just wasn't up to to speed in terms of learning the offense and with his training exercises. There were a lot of instances last year where we would have liked to put him in and hand him the ball some. But most of our games were close, and we did not want to jeopardize a game by sticking a freshman in there and have it go the wrong way."
And so it was Lewis who seized the opportunity, rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns. He carried the ball 75 times in Pitt's final two games alone. He'll enter the 2010 season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
But don't forget about Graham. He has learned the offense now and put on more than 20 pounds in the weight room. He broke off big play after big play in the spring. Even in limited duty last season, he led all Pitt tailbacks by averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Lewis is a workhorse who's incredibly tough to bring down. Graham may have more home run potential.
No one is suggesting that Lewis won't still be the focal point of Pitt's offense. But Wannstedt says the team has "a good one-two punch" with Graham and that the Panthers will look for ways to get him more involved. If something were to happen to Lewis, Pittsburgh would feel comfortable using Graham as its main ball carrier.
Graham said he never thought seriously about transferring last year even as his classmate ran off with postseason honors and accolades. He's hoping to follow the same path as Lewis, even if he has to wait a while to do so.
"He understands that he's got ability to be a big-time player, and that will happen," Wannstedt said. "He just has to have faith that his opportunity is going to come."