By Matt Popchock
This year Ben Roethlisberger became the first active NFL player ever to serve as honorary chairman for the annual Big 33 Classic. Evidently, while loafing on the sideline with his fellow Ohioans, he waved the same magic wand he used to deliver Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers, as the Buckeye State rallied late to beat Pennsylvania for the fourth year in a row, 24-21 in overtime, in the Super Bowl of high school football.
But there’s a different kind of magic coming soon to Heinz Field. If Paul Chryst wishes upon the right star, every Saturday will be a Shell game, and nothing short of a Hogwarts alumni will be able to halt the hocus-pocus.
Incoming freshman Rushel Shell–who garnered five stars, to be exact–spent much of his high school career in his own galaxy, and under the telescopes of Dave Wannstedt and Todd Graham. Faster than we could say either “Fear the ‘Stache” or “Snakes on a Plane,” the Hopewell running back and relative of Panther legend Tony Dorsett slithered, scatted, and sprinted his way to a new PIAA all-time rushing record. Furthermore, he finished with a new American mark for consecutive 100-yard efforts, clearing the bar set by another (eventual) Heisman Trophy winner from Dorsett’s decade, Billy Sims.
The easygoing ex-Viking, the No. 11 high school prospect in the country according to MaxPreps, seems to have few qualms with bearing the burden of gridiron greatness. Then again, the spotlight has always followed him like many of the would-be tacklers he’s outraced.
As I approached the media entrance to Hersheypark Stadium Saturday evening and began to soak in the all-star atmosphere, the first group of fans to enter my consciousness was one walking slightly ahead, several of its members wearing Shell’s name and number on the backs of their shirts.
Get used to it, Pittsburgh.
With the blue-and-gold faithful watching, Shell promptly gave the “other” Blue ‘n’ Gold faithful a glimpse of the future. On Pennsylvania’s second play from scrimmage, Skyler Mornhinweg lobbed one to No. 1 (er, No. 2 on this night, actually), who dinked and dunked his way up the near sideline for 18 yards. That first down set up a long scoring bomb by Mornhinweg for the game’s first points.
The third quarter produced another familiar sight. With PA reeling from seeing its 14-0 lead cut in half, Shell’s abnormal number was called again. He danced to his left, waited with Zen-like patience for his linemen to clear a path, then darted up the same sideline for another 20, putting his team on the plus side of the field. Pennsylvania ended that drive by regaining a two-touchdown lead.
“I wanted to show them I’m ready to go,” Shell said of those following the Big 33 far and near, “and that I’m not coming just to sit on the bench, but to make impact plays as a freshman.”
It wasn’t his typical eye-popping performance. Shell, in shared duty, ended with 41 all-purpose yards. But he’s certainly done his part to set a tone of anticipation for the first training camp of the Chryst era.
“I got to play with some guys who are going to Pitt with me. This [game] was an important step in forming a brotherhood with them before I even get there,” he added.
Not that he’s selling himself short, but lest we forget, Shell formed that brotherhood long before Saturday. It was he and out-of-state QB prospect Chad Voytik who reportedly convinced Todd Graham’s WPIAL recruits to stick together.
One who didn’t need a lecture from his surrogate brother was tight end J.P. Holtz, who scored that last PA touchdown on a four-yard pass from co-Player-of-the-Game Blake Rankin, and will join Shell after vacillating between Pitt and a couple of Chryst’s former Big Ten rivals. When coaching turmoil of an even more controversial nature occurred in State College, it left popular Penn State assistant Tom Bradley without a job.
Some close to Holtz believe the Shaler ironman might have followed Bradley to the ends of the Earth. Instead, Holtz took the high road and stayed home.
Being at home has really hit home, he says. So why screw up a good thing?
“We’re as good as anyone in the country,” the Titans’ 2011 co-captain and team MVP said, remembering his own District 7 brethren. “The WPIAL plays football at a level that gets you ready for college.”
But is he that good? Could he possibly be ready to help an offense that looked equally uninspiring under two different coaches the last two years?
Let’s put it this way: if history is any guide, he’d finish this article for me, without one word of complaint, if Neil Gordon asked him to. Holtz has demonstrated more plug-and-play ability that your modern video game system in four seasons on Mount Royal Boulevard, and although his position often changed, his toughness, seemingly, did not. In the long run that should make him and Shell ideal fits in the new scheme.
Chryst is trying to bring Pitt football back to its roots. Wannstedt couldn’t turn his pro-style offense into the well-oiled machine he wanted, at least not enough to fulfill high expectations, but the former made it work at Wisconsin. He had the proper ingredients there, and, thanks to his WPIAL recruiting base, he’ll have them here as well.
Shell is cut from the same cloth as alumni LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, and recuperating regular Ray Graham. He can extend the play to the outside, he can catch out of the backfield, and he isn’t shy about gouging you right up the gut, either.
Give Holtz the ball out in the open, and he, too, can become a human pinball. More importantly, though, the backfield needs all the protection it can get in a pro formation, and, teamed with WPIAL contemporary Adam Bisnowaty, he’ll give that to Shell and company in an offensive front that has recently suffered from injuries and roster turnover.
No injury appeared more grave, however, than the one middle linebacker and Penn Hills product Dan Mason endured Sept. 23, 2010, when his right leg was smashed in more places than Pitt’s BCS hopes. Amazingly, Mason has recovered, and he is expected to reclaim that spot after what will be an absence of nearly two calendar years.
Something was indeed missing from that linebacking corps in 2011, which had to work that much harder to supply a strong spine to the defense. Something was also amiss on Saturday, according to Woodland Hills standout Mike Caprara, who, like Pitt sophomore and two-time teammate Ejuan Price, eschewed Ohio State after the firing of Jim Tressel.
“We have a sign at the Wolvarena that says, ‘To achieve, you must endure,'” Caprara said Saturday night. “We touch it every time we go out on the field. Tonight, when I was coming out of [the tunnel], I’m not gonna lie, I was looking for it. I just imagined it on the wall, and touched it.”
To achieve greatness at Woodland Hills Caprara (6’0″, 210 lbs.) had to endure skepticism. Early on some wondered if he was too small to play the game. He proved them wrong by leading its defense, with Price by his side, to a WPIAL title and subsequent championship berth, and by setting the program record for career tackles…and he was only a junior.
Complacency wasn’t in the cards for his senior season. He registered 103 more tackles to finish with 387, and made one of the best defensive plays in Saturday’s contest. With Ohio again threatening to slice into PA’s lead, wildcat quarterback Adam Wallace barely had the ball in his hands on 3rd and 5 when Caprara gave him a bear hug, stripped it, and, down on all fours, secured the red-zone turnover to stop the bleeding.
“I played my heart out tonight,” the Pennsylvania team co-captain said.
That’s pretty much par for the course for him.
Caprara became the 27th Wolverine to play in the Big 33 since the court-ordered merger that created the school district in 1987. He is one of 11 to receive a football scholarship to Pitt. Four of those 27, including Steelers defensive back Ryan Mundy, presently play in the NFL.
Oh, by the way, Mike has five uncles who played college football too.
So, uh, no pressure, or anything.
“This is a prestigious honor, and I know I didn’t earn it by mistake. If you were here, you saw what I bring to the table,” Caprara said. “It’s pedal to the metal, and I’m not slowing down from here on out.”
(Not to be confused with “left lane, hammer down,” we hope.)
The Panthers ranked in the top one-third of Division I in total defense and third in the nation in sacks last year. The familiarity longtime Mount Lebanon bench boss Chris Haering has with him after two postseason meetings should help both parties as Caprara takes his place alongside natives Mason, Price, and Todd Thomas, and as Haering settles into his role as Caprara’s position coach at Pitt.
The hiring of Chryst was justifiable, but there might be even more savvy behind Chryst’s decision to put Haering in charge of the linebackers. Mason and Price, on separate occasions, have shown equal potential to be the most physically dominant player on the field. Thomas gained valuable experience in ’11 as a redshirt freshman. With Caprara joining the list of young WPIAL talent the program is growing at the position, who better to cultivate it than an old-school western PA task-master like Haering?
Also adding toughness to Pitt’s defensive front will be 6’4″, 325-pound lineman Tyrique Jarrett. The last time Pitt boasted a top-notch player from Allderdice was some guy named Martin, and we all know how that turned out.
Jarrett might not score style points like Mr. Martin did. In fact, he might not score any points. But he was an unsung hero on both sides as the ‘Dice, surprisingly, rolled to the City League title game, and being called to Hershey to represent the League, in its present state, makes him part of a dying, but nonetheless special, breed.
“I’m ready to do big things down at Pitt,” Jarrett said. “Being from the City League, you don’t get much recognition, but if you work hard enough, you can make it here.”
Last year Jarrett was invited to experience the Big 33 festivities as a member of its top 100 prospects list for the 2011 campaign. This year he made the pancake look as easy as making an actual pancake. He finished, unofficially, with four solo tackles, and, like Caprara, often found himself in the backfield with the ball-carrier at his mercy.
The 2010-11 academic year wasn’t a good one for linemen who were recruited out of the Commonwealth. It showed in the previous Big 33 contest, in which Ohio blasted PA in historic fashion, 50-14, and owned the line of scrimmage all night. Last Saturday’s game was a remarkably different story.
“I’ve wanted to play here since I was a boy. That determination drove me,” Jarrett added. “I wanted to show people what I can do, and how I do it.”
The defensive tackle to whom one scout referred as “a vending machine with legs” should eventually deliver more pop to a unit that has already performed well against the run. Despite the aforementioned obscurity of modern District 8 football, he was ranked among the top 30 defensive line prospects in America by Scout.com.
In fairness to his City League contemporaries, schools aren’t as desirous of players from the WPIAL as they once were, either. Pitt often competes with mid-majors and lower-profile programs for these kids. But a number of high rollers from all over the college football canvas tried to pick the local crop that will be planted on Pittsburgh soil this fall.
Some probably say Chryst needs to broaden his horizons. Be that as it may, Pitt shows no intent of burning those nearby bridges, as they could still help the Panthers, old and new, cross the swamp into a brighter future as part of the ACC.
“We may not have had the same talent,” Jarrett said of all those weekdays and weekends spent at Cupples Stadium, “but we had the same heart. We had pride. That’s what counts in any game.”
“The WPIAL guys know, wherever we go, we have a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got to prove ourselves,” Caprara said.
“Western PA is, in my eyes, one of the toughest backyards in the nation. We play hard all night, and everyone is good. There’s a D-1 athlete just about everywhere,” said Shell, who believes he and his neighbors are ready to prove people wrong about the decline of Pitt’s program.
“My goal is always to win a championship,” Shell said in his typically humble manner Sept. 23, 2011, downplaying the fact he had just broken the WPIAL career rushing record along his path to PIAA history. “If we do that, you’ll probably see me jumping up and down.”
If the freshman class of 2012 keeps its promise, you’ll see a lot of people in the stands at Heinz Field do the same.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)