There’s always that moment in the narrative of a football player returning from injury. When he takes that first hit, knows his injured limb/tendon/ligament/muscle can take it. When he clears that mental hurdle. There’s something to be said for that.
Still, with Ray Graham it should be more about being able to plant, cut, spin and move. This really is about knowing the physical possibilities. His replaced ACL in his right knee needs to be able to take the stress of that. Graham, his coaches and teammates need to see it. More than any hit, they need to see that happen.
Graham, who participated in every drill today including the team periods, had one play where he planted his foot, made a cut and ran into the open field. As he turned around, he had a huge smile on his face, as if to say “I’m back.”
It was a big step forward from the way he played Monday as he didn’t participate in team drills and was a bit hesitant to make cuts and change direction.
That should be welcome news for Pitt fans as, when healthy, Graham is one of the best running backs in the country, and obviously a very important piece of the Panthers’ offensive puzzle.
After practice, Graham was all smiles and said that he felt a lot better than he did Monday and said he will continue to get stronger and more confident each day.
“I played with more confidence today, I went out there and just didn’t think about things,” Graham said. “The more I stretched, the better I felt and I just went out and played. The first day was a test day, just trying to see how I feel and I feel as though I am progressing as the days go on. And hopefully day three will be even better than day two. I just need to get better.
“I definitely felt a lot better, my knee is going to be sore after practice anyway. But when I made that move, I cut on my leg, it felt good. And I got tripped up earlier and I fell on it but it didn’t hurt at all.
“So this is a confidence thing, it is a mental thing and like I said every time, the more I don’t think about it and just do it, the better I will feel.”
It’s huge. I have no doubt there will be some days in camp where it will seem Graham takes a step back. The knee will hurt more on one day, and worries will flare. He is trying to get back to playing condition. He is trying to shake the rust off to regain the instincts and and knowledge of his body.
But it is a significant step forward. Something his coaches acknowledged, even as they did what they could to down play it.
Running back coach Desmond Robinson liked what he saw from Graham, but he will defer a final evaluation until later in camp. “It’s still early,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to say too much too soon.” Coach Paul Chryst appeared to like what he saw from Graham, but he was reluctant to get too excited. “He made a nice half-speed cut,” he said. Of Graham’s effort, he said: “It is gaining confidence in what you can do and knowing what you can do. If we can just keep moving forward, that will be good.”
Then there is the new toy in the sandbox. Rushel Shell.
During non-contact drills, Shell has caught the eye of running backs coach Desmond Robinson, a former Pitt linebacker who played on the 1976 national championship team with another Hopewell grad, Tony Dorsett. Robinson is understandably reluctant to make the inevitable comparison.
“I don’t know if it’s the same kind of player,” Robinson said. “I just know they are from the same (school) right now.”
After practice Tuesday, Robinson was asked to forget Shell’s past and judge the freshman back just on what he has shown in the first two days.
“I would be very impressed,” Robinson said, “because he understood the offense just in the short period of time we’ve given it to him, better than I expected.
“I would have been impressed no matter what kid it was. The other thing is he has the great work ethic and also he has the skills.”
Sounds like the entire package, but Robinson will wait before nominating Shell for All-American.
“He needs to just learn the full system, and we have to see how it looks like in pads,” he said. “We all look real good in shorts, the whole team we look better in shorts than we do in pads sometimes.”
The theme from the coaching staff does seem to be downplay the individual expectations. Not poor-mouth the kids or say they are not that good. Nor is it to downplay the team expectations or nitpick the problems. It is to keep perspective.
I will say, Shell already has his cliches down cold.
Shell said he knows plenty of expectations have been heaped on his shoulders but doesn’t feel more pressure than any other freshman. He said his focus is on improvement.
“I just have to come out and work hard every day and know that the guys, my teammates, are going to push me to get better every day,” Shell said. “I want to prove to coaches that they can trust me, that I am more mature than other kids my age. Now that I am here, it is all about football.
At the start of camp, at least, Isaac Bennett has become the Jan Brady of the running back corps.