West Xtra: Despite a lot of attention, he exceled on field
Even with defenses geared to stop him, Hopewell's Rushel Shell finished the season with 2,312 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns.
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For everything Rushel Shell accomplished on the football field during his senior season, he said his most memorable moment occurred when he was standing on the sidelines.
Shell's Hopewell team was facing New Castle Oct. 7, but Shell did not play due to a concussion. For one week, his assault on the Pennsylvania state rushing record was on hold.
Shell stood and watched as his friend and teammate, Adam Murray, stepped in at running back, churning out 134 yards and two scores on the ground.
Even though the Vikings lost, 32-28, Shell said watching Murray fill his shoes was one of the most gratifying experiences of his senior year.
"He really, really played spectacularly and kept us in the game even though we lost," Shell said. "He basically filled my shoes and kept the team going. That's one thing I remember the most.
"It was really weird. It was weird just knowing that I couldn't help our team, but I was really fascinated by the way he was playing. He was playing real hard and it made me respect him more."
Shell returned the next week, and didn't slow down from there. He reeled off big game after big game and ultimately, finished his career with more rushing yards than anyone else in Pennsylvania history.
For his accomplishments, Shell has been selected as the Post-Gazette's West Xtra Male High School Athlete of the Year.
Despite missing the game against New Castle, Shell still finished the season with 2,312 rushing yards, second-most in the WPIAL, and 28 touchdowns.
In the Vikings' final game of the season, a WPIAL quarterfinals loss to Franklin Regional, Shell ran for 292 yards on 33 carries to eclipse the PIAA career record. He finished his career with 9,078 yards on 1,107 carries, breaking the mark of 9,027 yards held by Steelton-Highspire's Jeremiah Young. Shell also set a national record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games.
"During the season, it didn't really mean anything to me, I just wanted to win team championships. That was always my main goal," Shell said. "But after the season, after high school was done, I felt really honored to be the No. 1 rusher in the state of Pennsylvania. There's been so many good running backs to come out of my area, to be the best one to come out of high school, rushing-wise, I really felt honored."
Hopewell coach Dave Vestal said he never tailored his gameplan to try and get Shell as many yards or carries as possible so he could break the record. Shell's skill level and durability, though, made him the Vikings' best option.
"He wanted the ball in pressure situations," Vestal said. "The great ones do, and the great ones find a way to make it go when you need the tough yards.
"He took a lot of punishment, took a lot of hits. But he still had that burst in the fourth quarter to hit the home run, and he did that quite often."
While he was chasing the state rushing record on the field, it was Shell who was being pursued off the field. One of the highest-rated running backs in the country, he had scholarship offers from nearly every major college football program, including 2011 national champion Alabama.
In an Oct. 14 news conference at Hopewell High School, Shell announced that he would be staying close to home and playing his college football at Pitt.
"There's no place like home," Shell said. "To play at home, people know who you are. It's just that feeling that I'm still at home playing the game I love."
Shell admitted that the recruiting process was hectic and overwhelming at times, but said he enjoyed meeting a lot of people he may not have otherwise.
"There was a lot going on, but he never really showed signs of that being something that would interfere with his daily life," Vestal said. "He always had a great personality, he was always loose. With all the pressure he probably felt, he never showed it."
Shell has been at Pitt for a few weeks, lifting weights and working out with his new teammates. Pitt coach Paul Chryst is known for his ability to use running backs -- he was just a few yards short of having three 1,000-yard rushers as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator in 2010 -- and Pitt certainly has talent in the backfield. Shell, returning star Ray Graham and spring breakout Isaac Bennett will compete for playing time.
"A lot of times you go in needing two or three [running backs,] so Rushel will certainly be in that mix," Chryst said at his signing day press conference in February.
When asked how he thinks his former star will do at the next level, Vestal recalls the first time he saw Shell in a Hopewell uniform four years ago.
"When we first brought Russ up as a freshman, as a player we might call up to the varsity, he worked extremely hard," Vestal said. "He won every single sprint we had. I would have races on purpose just to show seniors this kid's legit because to earn the respect of a senior when you're a freshman is difficult.
"I think he'll really work at a high, high level just like when he was with us as a freshman."
Shell burst onto the high school football scene that freshman year with a touchdown on his very first carry. Now, four years and 9,078 yards later, he's ready to make the same sort of splash at the next level.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:00 am