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Pitt RB Shell learning from his mistakes

| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, 11:20 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Rushel Shell gets his first carry as a Panther against Cincinnati on Sept. 6, 2012, at Nippert Stadium.

On the night before his 19th birthday, Rushel Shell stood inside Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, trying to make sense of recent events and prepare himself for his first collegiate game.

“In my head, I really couldn't think,” he said, “because it was so loud.”

Truth be told, the past month has been a bit muddled for the celebrated freshman from Hopewell.

During Pitt's training camp, he struggled to keep up with the size and speed of the other athletes, the likes of which he never had met on a football field. Then he hurt his back and missed important practice time.

He wasn't gone long, returning to open eyes on the Pitt coaching staff with his willingness to run hard, break tackles and, finally, use his speed to elude defenders. But it was only practice.

Soon thereafter, another hurdle — this one self-imposed — blocked his path when he was suspended for the Sept. 1 opener after breaking a team rule.

“I'm young. I make mistakes,” he said. “You learn from them every day. I won't let it happen again.”

So there he was on the Pitt sideline last Thursday, sorting everything in his head, when he heard a voice shout: “Rushel, Rushel.” Five minutes into Pitt's Big East opener, coaches were calling for Shell to enter the game.

“I was real surprised at that moment,” he said.

Coach Paul Chryst had waited long enough to see what Shell could do, and he made him the first running back off the bench after senior Ray Graham handled the initial two series.

Shell carried the football on his first snap, gaining 12 yards by outrunning a defender to the corner.

“My first run was really like a relief to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘I can do this. This is something I can do. I can excel at this level.' I just have to keep working as hard as I've been, and the older kids just have to keep motivating me every day to get better.”

Shell carried four times for 25 yards in that series, but quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked twice and Pitt was forced to punt. In the final 51 minutes of the game, Shell had only four more carries, finishing with eight for 31 yards.

Chryst was pleased, but he pointed out Shell's pass protection needs work. No wonder: Shell ran for a state-record 9,078 yards in high school on a team that seldom threw.

“I didn't know what a protection was coming in here,” Shell said. “It was rough at first, but I'm really getting a grasp of it now.”

Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is sympathetic and patient, for the moment.

“Blitz pickup is a little new to all of them,” he said. “I think it showed up in the spring that we really have to improve there, and (Shell) wasn't here this spring, so he is further behind the eight ball than the kids who were here. It's something you get better at when the action is going full speed.”

Rudolph said Shell has experienced ups and downs, but he acknowledged that he worked hard before and after his suspension.

“He showed a little bit and got an opportunity, and he needs to continue to show it,” Rudolph said.

Added Shell: “Every day I am going out there working as hard as I can, trying to earn (the coaches') trust but mostly my teammates' trust, so they know I won't hurt them in any type of way.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com.

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