Hubie Graham is going into his fifth and final season in college with his first chance to do what he always has wanted: play tight end in a true pro-style offense.
He thought that was what he was going to get when he made the decision to transfer to Pitt in 2010 after playing two years in more of a spread system at Illinois. At the time, Dave Wannstedt was still the head coach of the Panthers, and he had had great success in developing tight ends like Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham -- both Big East first-team selections.
Graham had to sit out his first year at Pitt because of NCAA transfer rules. Before he could ever take the field for the Panthers, everything flipped upside down. Wannstedt and his pro-style offense were out. Todd Graham and his hurry-up spread were in. Before Hubie Graham knew it, he was playing H-back in a system that did not play to his strengths.
He made the best of the situation, and finished third on the team with 28 catches for 325 yards and three touchdowns, a true testament to his skills as a player and his determination to make his role work -- even though it was not at all what he had envisioned.
Then just like that, Todd Graham was out and Paul Chryst was in, bringing with him the type of offensive scheme that fits Hubie Graham perfectly.
"I wanted to play on a tough, physical, hard-nosed team and be part of something special," Hubie Graham said in a recent phone interview. "When those plans all changed, it caught me off guard. But one thing I've learned is to roll with the punches. Last year was tough, but we're a strong character team. The guys really stuck through it. We did what we had to do, but going into this year, I feel the coaching changes made me realize how special it is to have a great group of coaches. Coach Chryst is a special guy. He truly cares about making each individual player better, so all the guys have bought in and so have I."
As for these changes coming at the right time for him, Graham said, "I'm excited. This is definitely the best-case scenario for my senior year. This year, I just want to fill that leadership role, be somebody that guys can look to on the team for advice and always be out there giving it all I've got. I'm finally excited to do what I've always wanted to do and play in the offense I've always dreamed of playing in."
Already, Graham has gained 12 pounds and is up to 245. He hopes to be at 250 by the start of training camp. Adding a bit more bulk should help him with his blocking, something he has put a major emphasis on this offseason. Last year, he rarely lined up in a three-point stance, and played a lot out of the backfield.
"I definitely want to be a dominant blocker," he said. "I feel like that's a very important aspect of a tight end. I want to be versatile so I'm working on that aspect."
Graham is very familiar with what Wisconsin has accomplished offensively because of the two years he spent at Illinois in 2008 and 2009. But he has also spent extra time this spring and summer watching Wisconsin tape to see how Cryst ran the offense with the Badgers.
He particularly enjoys watching former Wisconsin tight end Graham Garrett, who became a fourth-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2010. Last year, Wisconsin tight end Jacob Pedersen was a Mackey Award semifinalist. And it's hard to forget All-Big Ten performer Lance Kendricks, who went in the second round of the draft in 2011.
"Hopefully," Graham said, "I can mimic their success."