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Pitt's Shell ready to become featured runner

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 10:51 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Rushel Shell takes a handoff during the first day of spring practice Tuesday, March 5, 2013, on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Rushel Shell takes a break during the first day of spring practice Tuesday, March 5, 2013, on the South Side.

When he was a first-semester freshman, Pitt running back Rushel Shell was quick to point out his shortcomings and how college defenders were so much bigger and faster than what he saw in high school.

But now, only two months from the last game of his first Pitt season, Shell appears much more comfortable with his assignments and confident in his ability. With Ray Graham's days being done at Pitt, Shell is wearing his customary Hopewell High School number (1), but his mindset goes far beyond the shirt on his back.

“There are a lot of things I have to work on, but I feel like I'm 10 times better than I was last year,” he said Tuesday after the first day of spring drills, his first as Pitt's marquee running back.

“Physically and mentally, my game is smarter, and the knowledge of my game is a lot more expanded now.”

Shell struggled with pass blocking last season, largely because he was the center of Hopewell's offense for four years and was seldom asked to protect the quarterback.

“Now I can spot 'em all and get them down pinpoint,” Shell said. “I feel like that's going to be a strong point this year. That's where I needed a lot of improvement, and I improved.”

Thanks to the presence of Graham, Pitt's coaches were able to ease Shell into the lineup last year until he learned how to play when he wasn't carrying the football. This year there is no such luxury.

Shell is the clear lead runner, ahead of junior-to-be Isaac Bennett and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett. With Pitt working a new quarterback into the starting lineup — strong-armed senior Tom Savage was the first to take snaps at practice — coach Paul Chryst may lean on his running game, especially early in the season.

Shell acknowledges the challenge. He said Graham, who will be one of several Pitt seniors working out for pro scouts Wednesday at Pitt's indoor practice facility, taught him well.

“Ray told me to stay focused and I have to be a leader,” Shell said. “(He said), ‘Everybody is watching you. There are guys right behind you who would love to be in your spot. So when you take a day off, they're trying to get to where you are.' ”

Chryst is usually reluctant to praise his players, especially young ones, but he said Shell “did some good things” last season when he ran for 641 yards, 4.5 per carry, and scored four touchdowns.

“He runs hard; I think he's got good football intelligence,” Chryst said. “There is an opportunity for us to find an established No. 1 guy. I think he is capable of being that guy, but now he gets to go out and prove that. I'm excited for that.”

But Chryst's trust doesn't come without a demand:“If you are going to be a starter, you have to be a consistent performer,” he said.

When the time comes, Shell hopes to be ready to take his place among the four Pitt backs in the NFL — LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Henry Hynoski.

“I'm just working my hardest so one day I could be in that category and when I'm gone, people can say I was a great running back at Pitt,” Shell said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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