This spring, West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski discovered firsthand the power Rushel Shell can bring between the tackles. During a team drill, the two fiercely collided at the line of scrimmage. Kwiatkoski bounced off one way. Shell bounced off the other.
“We both felt that one,” Kwiatkoski recalled. “That showed me right there he knows how to bring it.”
Since transferring to West Virginia by way of Pittsburgh last year, Shell hasn’t been doing any interviews. But his teammates say the former blue-chip recruit has been bringing it behind closed practices while making a compelling case for significant carries out of the Mountaineers’ crowded running back competition.
“He’s shown us a lot,” said cornerback Daryl Worley. “I really didn’t think he would be doing so much this fast. He’s done some things that have shocked the players. We know he’s going to contribute big for us.”
Last year, the Mountaineers got a big contribution out of a transfer running back, who became an All-Big 12 performer.
This year, they could have the same.
Charles Sims arrived from Houston and instantly pried the starting running back job away from 2012 leading rusher Andrew Buie and top juco running back Dreamius Smith. Despite playing alongside an incontinent passing attack, Sims finished third in the Big 12 rushing, and led all league running backs in receiving.
Sims’ ability to catch passes out of the backfield is what helped distinguish him in the fall competition. Likewise, Shell’s power has been distinguishing this spring.
“He brings a physical dimension to our offense. I think he’s going to make us tougher -- he already has,” said West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider. “[Sims] brought something to that room that was different. That’s the same thing with Rushel. Not everyone is fortunate to coaching those types of guys. So you’ve got to make them better when you got them.”
Shell ran into issues at Pitt, which prompted him to want to leave. But so far at West Virginia, Seider said Shell has been a joy to coach.
“He paid for his first semester here on his own dime, went to class every day and busted his butt in the weight room and got in the best shape of his life,” Seider said. “Now, he’s reaping the benefit of that.”
Soon, the Mountaineers could be reaping the benefit.
Dating back to high school, Shell’s talent has been undeniable. At Hopewell in Aliquippa, Pa. -- the same high school that also produced NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett -- Shell set a Pennsylvania state record with 9,078 rushing yards.
“He had that unique combination of power and speed,” said his high school coach, Dave Vestal. “He would carry the ball 40 times a game, but the more carries he got, the better he was.”
That combination of power and speed resulted in Shell being rated the third-best running back in the country, and had the likes of Alabama and Ohio State pursuing him hard. But Shell elected to remain in the Keystone State and signed with Pittsburgh, where he rushed for 641 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman.
Even Vestal was unclear about what went wrong for Shell at Pitt. What is clear is that West Virginia has become the beneficiary.
“He brings a lot to the backfield,” Kwiatkoski said. “I think he’s going to be a valuable part of our offense.”
The Mountaineers have plenty of other options at the position.
Smith rushed for 494 yards last season backing up Sims, and has slimmed down 15 pounds this spring to improve his breakaway speed.
As a freshman, Wendell Smallwood came on strong at the end of last season, and took carries away from Smith. Andrew Buie is back after leading the Mountaineers in rushing in 2012. Dustin Garrison, who led the team in rushing in 2011, also is still around.
But Shell might have the biggest upside of them all.
“He’s what I consider a three-down back,” Seider said. “He can play first, second and third down. He has that physical dimension and the lateral quickness to get in and out of stuff.
“He’s the complete back.”