Pitt's top running back to transfer

Some of you might remember the contender-pretender series we did recently.

We thought Pitt was a contender. Until now.

Running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, has decided to transfer, the school confirmed on Tuesday.

“Rushel and I met on Tuesday morning and he informed me of his final decision to transfer," coach Paul Chryst said in a prepared statement. "I wish him only the best moving forward. Out of respect for Rushel, his family and his privacy, this will be my final comment on the matter.”

This is a huge loss to the program as it enters its first season in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Expectations were high for Shell heading into this season, as he entered this spring as the leading candidate to replace Ray Graham, one of the most productive running backs in school history. As a true freshman, Shell was the team’s second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries (4.5 avg.). He ran for 157 yards in a 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech.

Shell’s decision to transfer isn’t much of a surprise, as there were multiple reports that he had been considering it. Last week, Pittsburgh announced that Shell was taking some time away from football to “work through some challenges,” according to Chryst. His decision to transfer leaves the position lacking experience.

The bulk of the carries will now go to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. Bennett has the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 avg.). Crockett had 50 yards on 12 carries (4.2 avg.) as a redshirt freshman last season, and Brown’s contributions came on special teams.

Chryst said Bennett and Crockett both have their strengths.

“They’re different,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “They both have similarities. They both run hard. They like the game. Malcolm … can continue to learn to tempo his runs. Sometimes he has just one speed. They seem to have different styles.

“All that matters is playing their strengths,” Chryst said. “There are guys who are strong in a lot of areas. You can play to each player’s strength.”

Crockett said he has been waiting for this opportunity.

“When a man goes down, the next one has to step up,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for. I know my time will come. It’s here, so every rep, every second I’m just going hard to the fullest. Eventually, I’m going to try to start.”

Crockett and Bennett are already having fun with their new roles. Crockett said he’s the faster of the two and would win a race against Bennett.

“Let him believe what he wants to believe,” Bennett said with a laugh. “He’s fast, not faster than me.”

One of them is going to have to make their move into the starting lineup -- quickly.