Based solely on potential, Pitt running back Rushel Shell should be one of the top rushers in his new league in 2013.
But a little more goes into being among the best at your position. What coach Paul Chryst wants to see out of his talented back this spring is consistency. That is something that Shell was missing last season as the true freshman played behind incumbent Ray Graham.
"He runs hard," Chryst told reporters in Pittsburgh after the Panthers opened spring practice. "He has good football intelligence. There’s an opportunity for us to find and establish your No. 1 guy. I think he’s capable of being that guy, now he just needs to go out and prove that. I’m excited for that and like his approach. If you’re going to be a starter, you have to be consistent."
Graham was the clear No. 1 last season, but Shell showed the flashes that earned him high accolades out of high school, when he was one of the top-rated prospects in all the country. He showed some freshman struggles at times, too. There was a stretch midway through the season when Graham got the majority of the carries, something Chryst attributed at the time to the situations he faced in games against Notre Dame and UConn.
That is understandable, given the way Graham played against Notre Dame and how the UConn game got out of hand early. Still, there were those who wondered where Shell had gone.
Then in the bowl game, he had an opportunity to start because Graham was on the sideline with a hamstring injury. But the Panthers fell into a deep hole against Ole Miss quickly and the running game was rendered ineffective. Shell finished with 25 carries for 79 yards in the game.
It is interesting to note that Shell was more productive in the first seven games he played than the final five. Again, much of that could be a function of what happened in the Notre Dame and UConn games, when he had a combined seven carries. But three of his top four games on the season came in his first seven games. And it is hard to discount the drop in his yards per carry average. In his first seven games, he averaged 5.0 yards per run. In his last five, he averaged 3.7 yards per run.
While it is true that he played some tougher defenses at the end of the year, it also is true he had two of his best games against defenses ranked in the top 25 in the nation -- No. 18 Virginia Tech (157 yards) and No. 23 Louisville (96 yards) -- both in the first seven games.
For his part, Shell says he is relying on some advice Graham gave him last season to get himself prepared for 2013.
"He told me to just stay focused and be a leader; that all eyes are on you now," Shell told reporters in Pittsburgh. "There are guys right behind you that would love to take your spot, so when you take a day off, they’re that much closer to being where you are."