RB Rushel Shell quietly runs new objective at West Virginia

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It has been 11 months since Rushel Shell left Pitt's spring camp and seven months since he transferred across the Backyard Brawl battlefront to West Virginia, but Shell has yet to speak publicly on either event.

That's unlikely to change soon, as West Virginia has kept this redshirt sophomore running back quiet at spring practices. But if early returns from the coaching staff are any indication, Shell has fit right into the loaded running back corps in Morgantown.

"He's a physical, up North back," running backs coach JaJuan Seider said of Shell. "A physical, tough, take-my-lunchpail-to-work back. He's going to bring a dimension to our offense that we need -- some physicality to it."

Shell, a Hopewell High School graduate, redshirted and watched from the sideline in 2013 as the Mountaineers crawled to a 4-8 finish despite a 1,095-yard rushing season by senior tailback Charles Sims, who became the first West Virginia back to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Noel Devine in 2009.

Now, Shell is battling four other experienced backs for reps and, ultimately, a starting job. This spring, West Virginia is cycling between senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Wendell Smallwood, the incumbent backups; Shell and redshirt juniors Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie.

Shell is listed at 6 feet and 215 pounds, identical to his playing weight at Pitt, but the coaches said Shell has had to transform his body since he stepped on campus in August after four months away from football.

"He was a fat kid that was out of shape," Seider said. "He couldn't get through a practice."

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen turned Shell over to strength and conditioning coach Mike Joseph, who went to work in the weight room.

Joseph contends Shell "never got pushed quite that hard in training" before, so the fall was no cakewalk for him. Shell and his scout team comrades would be put through team challenges in the weight room every Friday, and Joseph said Shell bought right in.

"He saw coming in he was behind in terms of conditioning and fitness, and he knew he needed to change that," Joseph said. "Long story short, he wanted to get to where he is now."

Now, Seider said, Shell looks like "a brick house," a "tough son of a gun."

West Virginia is just three non-padded practices in, but Seider already has seen flashes of the strong and speedy Shell he remembered watching in YouTube clips a few years back when Seider was coaching at Marshall and Shell was still at Hopewell.

"He was too big for Marshall," Seider said, laughing. "I knew he was a big-time player."

At practice Tuesday, Seider recalled, Shell took a handoff in the power set, cut back against the flow of the traffic and surged through a hole and up the sideline for a long run.

"You can't teach stuff that's natural to a kid like him," Seider said. "The vision. The lightness of his feet. The kid can jump-cut two or three gaps -- you don't teach that. You can work on it, and you can gradually improve at it. But he's got it."

But Seider has four other backs he will crow about in the same way.

For now, it's a five-man competition, and there's plenty of jockeying to be done between now and the Mountaineers' opener in 177 days against Alabama in Atlanta.

"I'd put our room up there with anybody, even the team we play Game 1," Seider said. "I feel that good about our guys."

Shell switched his jersey number from his familiar No. 4 to No. 8 this season, and to find playing time he might need to be twice the back, too. For today, though, West Virginia is just happy to have him.

"Being away from football for a year, especially for a kid who was highly rated and had success early, you sense the hunger and the excitement to be back out there, the bounce he's got in his step," Seider said. "He's eager to play, and, hell, I'm eager to coach him."

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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