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RB Graham a gametime decision for Pitt's opener

August 31, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Running back Ray Graham might not play in Pittsburgh's season opener Saturday, but the news on the Panthers' two leading receivers from last season is much more encouraging.

Graham is coming off "certainly the best week he's had" in his recovery from a torn ACL, new coach Paul Chryst said Monday. But Chryst stopped short of saying Graham would play Saturday at Youngstown State, terming him a gametime decision.

"One thing we've talked about is if we're going to err. We'd rather play him a day late than a day too soon," Chryst said. "Surely, I think we're a better team with him, but I want to make sure we're doing what's best for him."

Injured starting receivers Devin Street (knee) and Mike Shanahan (hamstring) have picked up the intensity of their practices over the past week, and should be OK.

"I anticipate them being health," Chryst said, "and ready to go Saturday."

Street, a junior, had a team-best 53 catches for 754 yards last season. Shanahan, a senior, led the team with four receiving touchdowns among his 39 receptions and 493 yards.

Shanahan is a veteran of 37 games and 25 starts since 2009. Two years ago, Street also became a starter during his redshirt freshman season. The other receivers on the roster have a combined 37 catches. Street and Shanahan just recently returned to practice, but Chryst said their histories with fifth-year senior quarterback Tino Sunseri factor into the likelihood they will start Saturday.

"I think we're fortunate that specifically with Devin and Mike, they've played a lot of football and they've got good football IQ," Chryst said. "So you don't necessarily need to have a thousand reps of each route for them to understand and feel comfortable and develop timing with Tino."

Graham has 2,229 career yards on the ground, and averaged 162.8 total yards per game last season before suffering the injury Oct. 26 against Connecticut. He only recently returned to full-contact practices. Chryst said that Graham still had mental hurdles to clear.

"He was able to do more things, and gaining confidence is a big part of it," the coach said. "Don't exactly know where (he is), and each day is different with how he's responding and doing different things and how he responds to that."

Pitt could be taking a more cautious approach with Graham against an FCS opponent. The Panthers' second game is Sept. 6 - only five days after the opener - at rival Cincinnati in its Big East opener for what is the final season in that conference.

Sophomore Isaac Bennett and true freshman Rushel Shell are behind Graham on the depth chart. Bennett had 237 yards in five games last season, and Shell, a ballyhooed recruit, is Pennsylvania's career high school rushing leader with 9,078 yards.

"I thought this last week was a good week for Rushel," Chryst said. "He missed some time in fall camp, but I thought last week he was able to move and did a lot more things. So we feel good about going forward."

Pittsburgh went 6-7 last season, losing to SMU in the Compass Bowl. After first-year coach Todd Graham left in December to accept the same position at Arizona State, the Panthers hired Chryst, who was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

The Panthers will be in the ACC next season.