All eyes on Pitt RB Ray Graham

He has not played in a game since the end of last October, but Ray Graham is the most talked about player in the Big East headed into the season.

If he can return to form just 10 months after reconstructive knee surgery, he is a prohibitive favorite to win Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors, with the potential to carry the middle-of-the-pack Pitt Panthers to a championship.

If he has a hard time coming back, then the Panthers could be in trouble and questions will be asked about how good he can be again.

Already, it appears unlikely he will be able to play in the season opener next week against Youngstown State -- a prospect he acknowledged during Big East media day. Sitting out only adds to the anticipation surrounding his return.

“I just want to come back and don’t want to look back,” Graham told ESPN.com during the media event. “I want to make sure that I’m 100 percent ready. I don’t want to go out there because everybody is saying they want me out there. I still want to be smart about my situation. If I’m not ready, I don’t want to make a mistake to where I get hurt again. I want to go out there to where I have confidence and not be thinking about that.”

Graham has been held out of several practices during fall camp as part of his recovery plan, and began contact work earlier this week, spurring questions about where he is in the rehab process.

Pitt and Graham should be cautious with his recovery, because there is no need to rush his return. Nor is there a need for him to risk further injury against an FCS opponent. That means Graham could return in a crucial Big East opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 6.

Anybody who watched Graham play last season understands why there are so many eyes on him.

When he tore the ACL in his right knee against UConn last season, he was the best player in the Big East and ranked No. 2 in the nation in rushing. Headed into the contest, he had 939 yards on the ground, second most in Pitt history through the first seven games of the season.

In two of those games, he rushed for more than 200 yards. His ankle-breaking juke moves halted USF in his most memorable performance of the season, a 44-17 blowout on national television.

Couple his terrific play with his gregarious personality and "aww shucks" demeanor, and he had all the makings of a star.

Perhaps that is why so many are eagerly anticipating his return. In a league devoid of offensive star power, it is Graham that provides the best option at capturing some national attention for a league that would love a little … well, love.

He has appeared on three preseason watch lists. Kirk Herbstreit made him his choice to win Big East Player of the Year honors. Maybe the expectations are too excessive, given the severity of his injury and the amount of time it usually takes running backs to recover from ACL tears. But Graham wants the expectations heaped on him.

He has heaped them on himself.

“What I feel I have to do is, I feel I have to prove it to people, too,” Graham said. “I appreciate everything that is said about me. I feel as though they are giving me credit for the past years of what I’ve done and much respect to that. I have to take that and run with it but I still have to prove to myself that I can bounce back from this knee because it wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”

After Graham underwent surgery, he could not do much for himself. His mother and cousin had to do everything for him. For somebody used to outrunning the competition, it was a humbling experience.

Graham got down, but never for too long. He relied on his positive demeanor and a little help from his half-brother, Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene.

“He just kept telling me, ‘How bad do you want it? Because it’s right here. Now what are you going to do for it?’” Graham said. “As kids, we always said we want to do this, we want to do that, but now that it’s here, it’s time to seize the moment. He kept preaching to me: Make sure you’re doing what you have to do to get that knee right, because nobody’s going to get that knee right but you. I need that from time to time. Hearing it from somebody you really love and can relate to makes it that much better.”

Greene, coming off a broken ankle, got plenty of push from Graham, too. Though they never lived in the same home, the two were exceptionally close growing up in New Jersey. In what could be one of the best stories in all of college football, the two brothers are expected to be among the best players in the Big East.

“We didn't think it would fall into place the way it has now for us,” Greene said. “It's very humbling and very exciting. We're both very thankful and blessed to be in these positions and have the opportunity to compete on a daily basis with the best players and be recognized with the best players.”

Of course, much of that depends on Graham, and how quickly he can return. While the prospect of sitting out is disappointing, Graham knows he has to take his recovery slowly.

Even if it means waiting a few weeks longer to see what he can do.

“Some people don’t bounce back the same and some people come back the same or even better, and that’s what I’m trying to be,” Graham said. “I’m trying to come back better than the Ray Graham I was before.”