Shell following Dorsett's legacy

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- When a Pennsylvania running back draws comparisons to Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, there's probably something special happening. That's the case at Hopewell High School.

In the same classroom where he teaches astronomy, Hopewell coach Dave Vestal presses play on his laptop, showing what many consider an out-of-this-world display -- highlights of a variety of runs from Rushel Shell.

"He can run well between the tackles, make a move and, once he gets to the edge, he has real nice speed," Vestal said, providing commentary as images of Shell flash on screen.

Most striking is the play in which Shell employs a savage stiff arm to knock down a defender. Then again, maybe the most memorable clip is the one that shows a portion of a linebacker's busted helmet fly in the air upon impact with Shell.

"If I'm mad, I'll try to run someone over," said Shell, who has joined the film session a few minutes in. "But usually, I just do whatever it takes to score. "

He does just that on the next highlight, using a hesitation move to escape two would-be tacklers who seemingly had him fenced in along the sideline.

"Just like we coached it," Vestal jokes.

The 6-foot, 217-pounder is regarded as one of the nation's top Class of 2012 prospects. As a freshman, he ran for 1,576 yards, 14 touchdowns and an 8.4 yards per carry average -- numbers made even more stunning by the fact he didn't become a starter until the sixth game.

His recently completed sophomore season featured 2,740 rushing yards, a 9.4-yard rushing average and 35 touchdowns. In the 18 games since he broke into the starting lineup, he has never failed to rush for fewer than 133 yards in a game.

His best game was in October against West Allegheny, a team he blitzed for a career-high 349 yards, averaging 15.2 yards per rush in a 34-26 win. He was, in some ways, even more impressive in the playoff rematch, carrying a career-high 42 times for 275 yards and four scores in a 36-28 loss.

"He gets stronger as the game goes on," Hopewell associate head coach Pat Tarquinio said. "The bigger the game, the better he plays."

The stars seem aligned at Hopewell, especially when it comes to running backs.

The last time the Vikings had a running back this good was in the early 1970s, when Dorsett was just starting his Hall of Fame career. The Vikings' stadium is named after Dorsett, and Shell knows the legendary former player well. Shell's stepbrother is Dorsett's nephew.

Tarquinio, who has been coaching for 54 years and has seen a lot of great players in the area, generally avoids making comparisons to past players "out of respect for the former players," he said.

Yet, with Shell, he couldn't help himself.

"I have never seen a better high school running back than Rus, and that would include Dorsett," Tarquinio said. "Rus is a great back with a burning desire to be the best."

Shell's quest has been on-going since his days as a youth league terror in the community of Hopewell Township. Even at the ages of 7 and 8, he demonstrated an abundance of persistence.

"I remember a game against Brighton Township," Shell said of those early days. "I had a 99-yard touchdown, but it got called back. I ran it again, 99 yards, and it got called back. And then I ran it a third time, and it was a touchdown."

Shell is becoming a bigger star now in the community that is about 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh and gets frequent advice from Dorsett.

"He tells me that once I learn to make myself a smaller target coming through the hole, I will be one of the best," Shell said. "It's about making people miss."

Shell, who runs the 40 in 4.45 seconds, seems to be doing just fine in the elusiveness department.

And Vestal, who has a master's degree in physics and aeronautics from Miami (Ohio), has some intelligent ways to use Shell's talents.

Fair warning for Hopewell opponents: Shell has been working on passing out of the Wildcat and said he can fling it 55 yards. With that in mind, perhaps it's no wonder his idol is Ohio State junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the last player from the Pittsburgh metropolitan area to earn this much attention.

Shell has yet to meet Pryor, but the two have exchanged text messages. Shell said Pryor has not pushed him toward Ohio State and has only advised him to take all his visits and find the college that feels like the best fit.

Shell, who has an interest in studying criminal justice, said he favors Ohio State and Florida because of their winning traditions. He likes Ohio State's I-formation offense and Florida's wide-open attack.

"Ohio State and Florida," Shell said, "are a mixture of old and new."

With Shell being so close to his mother, he could decide to stay close to home and play at Pittsburgh.

Shell, who has his mother's initials tattooed on his arms, is soft spoken and seems more than humble, but many of his supporters worry that hype might go to his head.

That's where his mother comes in.

"My mother," Shell said with a sheepish smile, "she tells me, 'You're not in the NFL yet.'''

When asked if the concerns about a potentially overinflated ego are legitimate, Shell paused for a few seconds.

"Uh, not really," he finally said. "I could be cocky. But I'm not that kind of guy. I just see myself as a normal kid."


Don't say that to West Allegheny coach Bob Palko, who watched Shell rush for 624 yards in just two games against his team last season.

"He's so good that sometimes you get caught marveling at him when you should be trying to find a way to stop him," said Palko, whose son Tyler was the University of Pittsburgh's starting quarterback from 2004 to 2006 and is now battling for an NFL job. "The truth is, you can't stop Shell unless you have a bazooka. He has great vision, speed and power. Physically, he's the whole package."

Something special, indeed.

Walter Villa is the deputy sports editor for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and covered high school sports for five years at the Miami Herald. He can be reached at wvilla07@yahoo.com.