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Slimmer Shell settles in at WVU

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
West Virginia running back Rushel Shell gains yardage during a practice session Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
West Virginia running back Rushel Shell gains yardage during a practice session Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At long last, Rushel Shell seems to have found a home as opposed to a destination.

This news comes not from Shell directly because no freshmen or newcomers have been available to the media during West Virginia's preseason camp. That includes Shell, a sophomore who sat out last season after his controversial transfer from Pitt in early 2013.

But to those who know him well, like his mother, or have come to know him, like his coaches and teammates, Shell has landed softly in a warm, nurturing and somewhat crowded nest. He is one of five running backs expected to help the Mountaineers atone for last season's 4-8 record.

“He loves it,” said his mom, Toni Zuccaro. “He said it was the best move he ever made. He just feels ... I don't know. I can hear it in his voice. He's very happy where he's at.”

Zuccaro said her son enjoys remaining close to his 2-year-old twin daughters, Arionna and Amiyah, who live in Hopewell with their mother. The girls, Zuccaro said, “are doing real good.” Meanwhile, running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said Shell is doing well as a Mountaineer.

“He understands the different passions down here between the fans, this community, how everybody embraces the toughness and the closeness that we are,” Seider said.

His mind at peace, Shell also apparently is comfortable inside his streamlined frame. He is listed at 6-foot-1, 213 pounds after showing up last fall weighing upwards of 230.

“I don't think there's an ounce of fat on him now,” Seider said.

“He's really fulfilling all the expectations we had for him,” cornerback Daryl Worley said. “His body has slimmed down, and from watching him and playing against him, it's helping him move faster. He's making the cuts he wants to make and perfecting everything he had in his toolbox before.”

Zuccaro claims her son gained considerable weight while at Pitt “because they had him bulking up too big” (a Pitt spokesman declined comment). Regardless, Shell responded “to the different way we trained,” Seider said. “He felt that he was part of something different. He said, ‘I've never been through this. We never trained the way we train here.' ”

Seider was quick to add, “I'm not taking a shot at the other school,” meaning Pitt. Then he continued to extol the new Shell who, he said, performed enthusiastically with the scout team last season.

“You'd have never thought he had been anywhere else, the way he helped recruit when we had kids coming in for the weekend,” Seider said. “He really took to being a West Virginia kid.”

Leaving town

To the citizens of Pitt football nation who raged at Shell's departure and called him a traitor, or worse, these are stinging words. The on-field rivalry ended in 2011, and the programs occupy different conferences now, but the mutual enmity still boils among the city school and the country school located just 70 miles apart.

Zuccaro said she overheard people in a checkout line saying nasty things about her son. Recently, she said, a stranger confronted her in a convenience store. The man noticed her shirt, an oldie from Shell's high school days at Hopewell with his name and No. 1 emblazoned on the back. Zuccaro said the man told her, “You should be embarrassed to wear something like that.”

Zuccaro told him she did not appreciate the advice and imparted a tip of her own: “Watch what you say about other people's kids.” Who was embarrassed now? The man tried to beat a hasty retreat. Zuccaro, however, was not finished.

“I wouldn't let him out of the store,” she said, half-kiddingly.

Shell, the all-time Pennsylvania prep rushing leader, was listed among the top five high school running backs nationally when he committed to Pitt in 2011 when Todd Graham was the Panthers coach. He held to that when Graham left for Arizona State and Paul Chryst took over.

In his second college game, Shell ran for 157 yards in a win over Virginia Tech. That came after he and other players were suspended from the opener for violating undisclosed team rules. Sharing the position with senior Ray Graham in 2012, Shell rushed for 641 yards. He was the presumed starter for 2013 when he walked out of spring camp and later said he was leaving for good, for undisclosed reasons that remain that way.

“He doesn't want to talk about it, so I don't want to talk about it,” Zuccaro said.

Road to Morgantown

Shell and his mother visited UCLA, located in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. He spread the word that he was transferring there, even changing his Twitter handle to “Mr. Hollywood.” If UCLA offered a scholarship, it has not been reported. In June, Shell changed his mind, saying the school was too far from his daughters. He asked to return to Pitt, but Chryst would have none of it. West Virginia it was.

Shell always has been primed to be a No. 1 back. He might yet be, but he will have to emerge from the pack. And though the Mountaineers will run, the offense is built on passing. Runners are expected to catch.

No one sees any of this as a problem for Shell.

“The way we use those guys right now, I don't think it's gonna be an issue,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “All those guys are buying into the fact that they have to do multiple things.”

Seider, who claims Shell is a better receiver than generally acknowledged, said, “The one thing people don't know about Rushel is that he's not selfish. But I'd be kidding you if I said he's not gonna play for us. He's too talented not to be playing. He knows opportunity's knocking on his door, and I think he'll fully take advantage of it.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at

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