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Panther Hollow: In Due Time, Pitt Will Win The Shell Game

By Matt Popchock
Rushel Shell

(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — An era that didn’t really last long enough for any of us to fully appreciate it has ended at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tailback Rushel Shell, once the most prolific rusher in PIAA history and the hottest recruiting commodity in the Commonwealth, will officially transfer out of his hometown program.

On Friday his mother refuted a Twitter-driven rumor that her son, who put up a commendable 641 yards and four touchdowns behind former All-Big East honoree Ray Graham as a pure freshman in 2012, was headed to a certain high-octane Division I school.

Bottom line is, though, he’s sticking to guns when it comes to distancing himself from his current team, which leaves just one question.

So what? Even if the Gospel of TweetDeck spake the truth to thine restless multitudes, so what?

Don’t get me wrong. He was an obvious successor to Graham, and, by extension, a likely footstep-follower of fellow 21st-century Panther greats Dion Lewis and LeSean McCoy. Prior to his verbal commitment in October 2011, Pitt hadn’t had a tailback from the WPIAL with such a lofty ceiling since, you know, that other guy from Hopewell.

But clearly Shell, emotionally, had hit a wall here, and a malcontent, by definition alone, will likely never hit that ceiling.

I’ll give you the same advice I dispensed in December when fellow Beaver County superstar Robert Foster left coal in Paul Chryst’s stocking by spurning Pitt for Alabama:

Be disappointed. But don’t be discouraged. Shake his hand, wish him well, thank him for the memories, and step away from the Cathedral of Learning’s ledge.

Hey, it worked for Chuck Noll, right?

Whether his reasons are justifiable or not, Shell isn’t the only running back in this town to ever generate fan angst with his absence. About thirty years ago, Noll took heat when Franco Harris held out of training camp and responded to pressing questions about the matter with, “Franco who?”

The Emperor Chaz hadn’t lost his noodle. Quite the contrary.

That Steeler squad enjoyed a respectable season in part because Noll focused on players who were there and wanted to be there, and he tried to shift focus away from those who weren’t. On Tuesday Paul Chryst, though diplomatic enough to field a few questions, did exactly the same, and expect him to expect what’s left of his team to follow in lock-step.

Not that they have any choice. Chryst’s offense isn’t getting any older this spring. In addition to moving on from Shell’s departure, he has to integrate new starting receivers, inexperienced linemen, and, regardless of who earns the job, an unproven quarterback, having seen five of last year’s starters get their diplomas.

Count Shell among those who had room to grow, and there’s no guarantee he would have immediately completed his evolution while running behind a line that just lost its two best players to graduation. There’s also no doubt Chryst, who has demonstrated open-mindedness on some level, would have made Shell a focal point of his pro style attack anyway, and history says there’s no doubt this dog, under this master’s watch, would have had his day.

Replacing him is out of the question for Pitt. However, having seen a number of the players Chryst has coming down the pike, replicating him is not.

Isaac Bennett, entering his junior season, is the most logical successor. Last year, in limited duty, he averaged more yards per carry than any Pitt running back, and scored only one fewer touchdown than Shell. Once again, there’s no comparison in terms of inborn talent, but Bennett has speed that mirrors Shell’s, he hasn’t shied away from contact this spring, and he’s a competent pass-catching back.

Furthermore, Bennett has been through the coaching turmoil, all the while having his patience tested while Graham and Shell had their moments. But you’ll never hear him complain about anything. Not even remotely. If anything, the next flag-bearer at the position will seemingly have his head and heart on the same wavelength.

While Malcolm Crockett has seen his redshirt sophomore campaign get off to an injurious start, Steeler sibling and walk-on Desmond Brown, entering his only year of eligibility, has also gotten in some good reps against Chryst’s defense. Freshman James Conner, a defensive end at Erie McDowell who impressed Pitt more than expected on the other side of the ball, will arrive this summer.

When simply submitting Conner to the eye test, he can fill the void of toughness left by Shell in the backfield, and he’ll probably have less difficulty grasping the art of pass protection at the college level. With the aforementioned roster turnover up front, Pitt, in that respect, could use whatever help it can get.

Before hitting the panic button (whether it’s one endorsed by Jim Colony or not), let’s not forget this, either: Chryst’s potentially most lethal young weapon on offense, like Conner, hasn’t even been fitted for his uniform yet.

Pitt fans and staff alike are right to be fired up about what Clairton superstar Tyler Boyd could bring to the program. If anyone on the 2013 Panthers has big-man-on-campus potential similar to what Shell would have had, it’s he. According to Boyd, Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph showed a willingness to emulate Tom Nola’s playbook while recruiting him.

Yes, after the merry-go-round of coaches and coaching philosophies, there’s something to be said for consistency of approach, but the unpredictability of letting one of the “Bout Dat” Bears running all over Creation every now and then can only help.

Fans of this program are conditioned to having their guts ripped out. Their frustration is understandable. That said, every experience I had with Shell as a high school and college athlete was a pleasant one. Although the list of student-athletes who struggle when they realize college isn’t just “13th grade” is a lengthy one, I have no way of corroborating the speculation about lesser work ethic or differences with teammates and/or coaches, so I’ll let the hearsay remain hearsay, and simply wish that Shell’s decision works out for both his own good and the greater good.

He could have and would have been a star here, and today’s climate in major college football suggests sometimes, as a coach, it’s not a bad idea to finesse your stars a bit. Nevertheless, Chryst, in the bigger picture, gave him a fair shake at Pitt, so if his decision proves to be a fruitless one, regardless of which team he plays for in 2014, then let it be remembered as Shell’s mistake, not the program’s.

The Panthers have lost a great player, but hopefully they won’t lose the lesson. If you don’t want it badly enough, there’s always somebody else not far behind who does. Based on what I’ve seen and heard on the South Side, there’s 80 more young men who want badly to make all of this a footnote in Pitt football history.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)