MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Before making his West Virginia debut Saturday, the last time Rushel Shell played in a college football game was also on a big stage in the south against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Of course, that was almost 20 months ago when Shell started for Pitt against Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. On Saturday, Shell was the Mountaineers’ starter against No. 2 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game inside the Georgia Dome.
On both occasions, Shell was the player featured in the backfield. He carried 23 times for 79 yards in the bowl loss and finished with 12 offensive touches for 57 yards in the 33-23 loss to the Crimson tide. After sitting out last season as a walk-on following his transfer and then battling five others for snaps and a role in the spring and summer, no player was given the ball more than Shell.
Not Kevin White, who set career-highs with nine receptions for 143 yards. Not running back Wendell Smallwood, who has long been considered the replacement for what Charles Sims did for the offense last season. Not Mario Alford, who caught five passes and returned three kickoffs and on Tuesday was named the Big 12 special teams player of the week for his 100-yard kickoff return touchdown.
“It just felt good to line up an see someone in a different jersey and hear everyone screaming,” Shell said. “It was a great thing to feel.”
It had to feel weird, too. It was one thing to be in a game and working with his teammates and not against them. He wasn’t a scout team star working against the starting defenders to get them ready for the next week’s opponent. He wasn’t working against a scout team defense designed to get him used to what he’d see from the next opponent.
He was standing across from the Crimson Tide. And on the first play, Shell was a wide receiver. WVU started with two running backs and then sent Shell out to the left and Smallwood to the right.
Shell would find himself along the line of scrimmage a few times and then running routes and attracting defenders. His two receptions came when he slipped out of the backfield, and one was an alarming display that saw him catch the pass moving up the field, juke one defender and then run over another for a gain of 19 yards.
The Mountaineers learned a lot about Shell over the past year, and they already knew him quite well as a former five-star recruit from Aliquippa, Pa. They suspected he had good ball skills as a receiver and put him with Alford on kickoffs — and WVU did that knowing teams were going to stay away from Alford, his score against Alabama notwithstanding.
Shell has nevertheless impressed with what he can do in the passing game and looks to do more of the same in Saturday’s home opener. The Mountaineers (0-1) play host to Towson (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. at Mountaineer Field. The game will be televised by Root Sports.
“The surprising thing is he can get out in the flat, catch a ball, make a guy miss, run a guy over and make an explosive play,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I think we’re all excited about that.”
Shell finished with 10 carries for 38 yards — his first three carries produced 20 yards — and two receptions for 19 yards. When he was effective early, he was able to run through tackles and move the pile of teammates and defenders. When he was used in the passing game, he was someone Alabama had to regard.
“That Shell, that guy is a good runner, and you’re going to know it before the end of this year is over,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Shell believes it’ll come quickly now that he’s been through a game and has shown what he can do with the offense. At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, he’s a worthy complement to the 5-11, 200-pound Smallwood and can play with power behind his pads and then use his speed to be a factor elsewhere.
“Regardless if we’re one-back or two-back, those guys might be in protection, but they may be in route-running as well,” Holgorsen said. “That’s why Wendell’s role is so big. He can get involved in the passing game with whatever we want him to do. Rushel is not there yet, but that’s why he’s playing as much as he is, because he is able to run with authority, as we know he can, and he’s able to pass protect because he’s physical.”
With Shell in the front, though, the running game sputtered and stalled against the Tide. Shell carried just four times for two yards after halftime, where the Mountaineers had minus-10 yards on 11 attempts — a bad snap and two sacks accounted for a loss of 29 yards. Eight carries by the running backs produced 39 yards and both numbers bothered WVU afterward.
“They’re just hard to run against,” Holgorsen said. “We had about 50 yards in the first half. We pulled it back and threw the screen passes, which technically is a run play. A couple of those plays down the field were run plays — we just pulled it and threw it down that way.
“It wasn’t a winning performance, but it’s hard to line up an average 5, 6 yards a play against those guys. They’re big. They’ve got great depth — they played 12 defensive linemen. They’ve got great depth, and they get off blocks. We could have probably called a few more run plays, but I was happy with what it was. It opened up some of the pass-game numbers.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.