First it was a zig, then a zag and then the defender charged with trying to tackle him (more accurately, touch him) looked pretty silly as he fell to the ground with what those far more hip than me would call “broken ankles”…..
And with that one play Ray Graham sent a strong message that he may just be back to being himself a lot quicker than anyone – including himself – could have imagined.
It was a running play, sort of a counter option and Graham got the ball, made a great cut and shook a defender then sprinted to the open field.
At the end of it he flashed that million dollar smile so as to say “I’m back…..”
And don’t think his teammates didn’t notice it, either, as he drew a lot of "oohs" and "ahhs" and "attaboys" from the players who were sitting out of the drill and even some of those observing practice.
It was only one moment of what was no doubt a great day for Graham as he looked faster, looked more confident, was able to cut and resembled the old guy, the one who was the nation’s second leading rusher before he injured his knee last October against Connecticut.
After practice Graham said he definitely felt much better and he said he felt more confident in his knee and he – as well as his Panthers teammates - is hoping that he will continue to take strides forward 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."
Graham said that one of the most important days will be Friday when the Panthers put the pads on for the first time because he wants to see how he will respond to getting hit for the first time.
Today he fell on it and said that it didn’t hurt and that helped his confidence and he also felt strong when he made his cuts. It should also be noted that he participated in every drill, including the team drills, and that is a big stride forward in itself because he sat out all of the team stuff Monday.
Paul Chryst, while happy Graham had a good day, was not ready to declare him back and even quipped something about his “half-speed” cut and that’s sort of been the way Chryst has handled things since the start: He undersells and wants to over deliver, he is very slow to heap praise on players until they earn it and he’s realistic.
** Another player who seemed to take a step forward was outside linebacker Todd Thomas, who took some first team reps today and seemed to move around very well.
Like Ray Graham, Thomas is coming back from ACL surgery and while he has started with the second-team, he is clearly going to be a starter once he gets healthy and Chryst said they are trying to ease him back into the mix and be smart with him.
I can tell you, just from the observations, he really seemed to be moving around well and he made a few plays so that’s a good thing.
“It is the same thing with Ray, he did it and every day you hope he can go a little more,” Chryst said. “We have to be smart in how we approach it with Todd and Ray. And Chris [Jacobson] has done a good job but we just have to be smart with those guys.”
Thomas worked in with Nicholas Grigsby and Shane Gordon with the first unit but the linebacker who may have had the best day was Eric Williams, who had two interceptions and deflected a third pass that was intercepted.
Williams is long and athletic and fits in well with this unit and what Dave Huxtable wants to do so I think he has a chance to be a very good player this year.
*** Speaking of athletes, the one thing I am impressed with about the defense is the overall athleticism. I like the linebacker group a lot –it is not experienced but they are more athletic than the past few years. I think the corners are athletic and the defensive tackles as well.
I asked Chryst about it and he, too, likes the athleticism of his defense.
“I think we have a chance to [be pretty athletic] and that will be the fun thing about tomorrow as we progress and we can put helmets and shoulder pads on and we can combine some more of the physical aspects of the game,” Chryst said. “Hopefully that can be something that when it is said and done, they will say that was an athletic group but time will tell.”
****** I’m going to do my best to make sense of the offensive line depth chart but I have to be honest it is going to be tough until they start scrimmaging more. The first-team is pretty set in stone (left to right) King-Jacobson-Turnley-Schlieper-Rotheram.
The second team is a hodge-podge of players and this is what I would say – it appears to me that Adam Bisnowaty, the freshman from Fox Chapel, is getting a few second-team reps here and there at left tackle.
It won’t shock me if that is where he ends up on the two-deep.
It looks like Artie Rowell is the second-team center - and the only other center beyond Turnley as he took all of the snaps that Turnley did not take.
Beyond that, it will be a few more days to sort it out as there are a lot of guys who were shuffled in and out between the second and third team – and being as these were two days without pads on, there isn’t much to learn about guys other than Adam Bisnowaty can move around reasonably well and looks like he has chance to be a good player.
From what I could tell, Bisnowaty, Rushell Shell, Terrell Jackson and Darryl Render were the four true freshmen who got some reps with the second team.
Also, LaFayette Pitts played almost exclusively with the first unit today at corner opposite of K’Wuan Williams but it may just be a case of where they are going to rotate those young guys with the first and second group until one of them seizes the job.
Pitts is a strong kid, a bigger corner and he looks to me like he is starting to grasp things better and that has enabled him to play a little faster. I think his size and strength will be important in this defense because the corners will be on an island so often and asked to do a lot more press coverage than before.
That’s what makes Pitts so attractive – he is strong enough to man-handle receivers at the line of scrimmage and athletic enough and fast enough to cover once they get off the line.
** Only one injury to report again – offensive tackle Tom Ricketts missed practice with some sort of an upper body injury. He was hurt in Monday’s practice and did not participate today.
**** The defensive end spot is one to watch – I think Tyrone Ezell and LaQuentin Smith (both who were moved there to shore up the position) have a chance to be pretty good additions and may end up as the starting duo. There is also Shayne Hale, T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy competing and so there will be a lot of good battles for playing time and to get into the rotation.
I watched Ezell today and I’ll be honest I really like what I see from him so far (again, without pads so be careful) but he has good explosiveness and athleticism and he is a big strong kid who will be able to take on blocks at the point of attack. He seems like a good fit there but we will have to see
***** Tomorrow I will go into more detail with the receivers and who is doing what but a good name to keep track of is Brendon Felder, who did some really nice things today in some of the drills. I like his speed and his ability to make yards after the catch. Like I said, I will have a lot more about the receivers tomorrow and will even throw in what I've seen from the tight ends.
Here is one teaser - J.P. Holtz is a man-child and it won't shock me if he sees the field early.....