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“Mr. High School Sports” – Win or Lose Saturday, Pitt Has Already Won

Rushel Shell

(Photo credit: MaxPreps)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

It’s hard to continue building up enthusiasm about Pitt football after last Saturday’s travesty of a mockery of a sham in Piscataway. But if it’s any consolation, there is reason to look forward to 2012, and beyond.

There is no guarantee of a homecoming win over Utah at Heinz Field this Saturday. But whether the Panthers deliver one or not, they are already a bigger winner this weekend than that school 200 miles east and that other school 90 minutes south.

The addition of Hopewell senior tailback Rushel Shell, the top “big back” and No. 11 overall recruit in the country according to MaxPreps, to Pitt’s already strong 2012 recruiting class could be a sign post to a new era on the North Shore. The most successful football player in Hopewell history–who happens to be Shell’s great-uncle–ought to know something about that.

Once upon a time, Pitt had become such an embarrassing program that not only was the school considering a drop to lower NCAA divisions, but there was also talk of the university distancing itself from college football altogether. Then, suddenly, a young man from Shell’s stomping grounds named Tony Dorsett saved the Panthers.

His arrival sparked a renaissance in Oakland, culminating in a coincidental Heisman Trophy for Dorsett and national championship in 1976, and before long, other impact players subsequently followed him to Pitt and revived the program.

For Pitt fans, it’s been far to long since the school was relevant in college football. But Todd Graham had already taken a big step forward by recruiting dual-threat quarterback Chad Voytik from Tennessee, and now he’s taken a colossal one by adding one of the most promising offensive players in the country to a backfield that may already feature one of the best in the country next season.

“Ray Graham is the leading rusher in the nation right now, so you can’t complain about it,” the WPIAL career rushing champ said in the Hopewell Senior High gymnasium at his press conference Friday morning. “I think [that offense] will fit me well.”

Even if Ray Graham does forego his senior season, Shell is going to bolster that offense by stepping through a revolving door of running backs who have thrived at Pitt under Todd Graham and Dave Wannstedt, but perhaps the most important part of Friday’s announcement were the other doors that opened. The fact that a nationally-renown prospect bought into the “high-octane” concept could be a call to action for other top recruits, including those in the WPIAL.

He has, in fact, already reached out to some of the other top high school players in the state, including Bishop McDevitt defensive end Noah Spence, Central Valley athlete Robert Foster–his Week 7 opponent–and Erie McDowell running back Greg Garmon.

“You can’t just have one running back, you’ve got to have a variety of running backs,” Shell said, singling out the heavily-recruited Garmon, one of several players he mentioned who has been courted by Pitt. “I talked to family members and such, and I know when Tony went to Pitt, he brought a strong class with him that won a national championship, so I’m just trying to do the same thing.

“Coach Graham told me…at the beginning of the summer…to commit early so we could maybe bring some of those guys in,” said Shell, who claims he had privately settled on Pitt prior to the start of the ongoing WPIAL football season. “I thought that was a smart idea.”

It was an equally smart idea for Shell to wait out the coaching turmoil at Pitt last winter. Dorsett excelled under Johnny Majors, an enthusiastic southern-born coach who brought new stability and a new attitude to the program–and also brought Dorsett himself. Sound familiar?

“It just made me step back, take a look at their new coaching staff, and try to develop chemistry with them,” Shell said, downplaying Wannstedt’s exile last December.

Indeed, Shell has developed a good rapport with the new staff at Pitt. Although he was quite fond of Wannstedt and his staff as well, Shell should be an even better fit for this regime.

Why? Because the ‘Stache was allergic to success. Shell, clearly, is not. Now that Pitt is it for him, he’s putting it out there that Pitt can be it again in the near future.

“I welcome all expectations,” he said, corroborating his earlier claim that he wanted to play for a school capable of winning a national title. “I think I can fit well in their offense, and they’ve got enough good recruits right now that we can make it happen. I’m going to bring them someone who will never give up, even when we’re down 30 points, and leave it out on the field.

“Since ninth grade I’ve been going to games as a recruit. Pitt just gave me that feeling…as soon as I stepped into that atmosphere, it felt right,” Shell said.

With a player of Shell’s caliber in the backfield, and future blue-chip recruits inspired by his example, that atmosphere can eventually turn into rarified air for the Panthers.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)