MORGANTOWN — It’s hard these days to get Rushel Shell off track, and we’re not talking about as a running back.
Yes, that’s difficult, too. At 5-foot-10 and a rock-solid 215 pounds, he hasn’t really shown what he can do yet. Part of that is that the only game he’s played for West Virginia so far came against Alabama and one of the best run defenses in the country. He carried only 10 times and gained just 38 yards, but even the coach whose team held him to those paltry numbers was impressed.
“That Shell, that guy is a good runner,’’ Nick Saban said. “And you’re going to know it before the end of this year.’’
One of the reasons is because finally, after what seems like an eternity, Shell appears grounded and committed to what he’s doing. It just took him a while to get to this point.
“There definitely were some ups and downs emotionally,’’ Shell said.
By now, the basics of the story are fairly well known. But just to review, Shell was one of the most highly recruited players in the country while at Hopewell High in Aliquippa, Pa. He’d run for over 9,000 yards there and could have gone anywhere after his senior season in 2011. He chose to stay close to home and go to Pitt.
That didn’t have as much to do with Pitt football as it did Pittsburgh itself. It was only a 30-minute drive home, where a few months after his final high school game he’d become the father of twin girls, Arionna and Amiyah. He even stuck with the decision after Todd Graham was replaced by Paul Chryst as the Panthers’ head coach.
But when Shell got to Pitt, things just didn’t work out like he’d planned. The specifics have never been laid out for public consumption, but after running for 641 yards as a true freshman while playing behind Ray Graham — including 23 carries for 157 yards against Virginia Tech — his Pitt career was over. He didn’t take part in spring practice and began looking for another place to play.
After a trip to Southern California, he was ready to transfer to UCLA and even announced his intention to do so. It didn’t happen, though. He said at the time he’d decided that he wanted to stay closer to home, rather than figuring out a way to take his family across country. He reportedly tried to mend fences at Pitt, but Chryst would have none of it.
That’s when Tony Gibson stepped in. Again.
“There was a point where I did give up on football when I decided not to go to UCLA,’’ Shell said this week. “But Coach Gibson got in touch with me and said that West Virginia was very interested in me. He definitely had a big part in me wanting to play football again.
“He helped me find the love I first had [for football] when I was 4 years old.’’
The relationship between Gibson and Shell is not a recent one. It was Gibson who had originally recruited Shell to Pitt while an assistant there under Graham. After he’d left Pitt and had his brief fling with the idea of going to UCLA, when Shell was again looking for a place to land it was Gibson who recruited him all over again, having just been hired by Dana Holgorsen.
“Throughout the recruiting process in high school, Coach Gibson was the top guy I trusted the most,’’ Shell said. “He always looked me in the eyes and told how it is, whether I liked it or not. He was just a guy that no matter what I always knew I could trust him. Even if I didn’t play for him, I could call him and we could talk about just life in general.’’
Those talks were necessary after Shell’s life had seemingly gone off the rails, a once-blue-chip recruit now floating unattached. Between the time he left Pitt and when he arrived at West Virginia a year ago — it was only a matter of months — Shell had ballooned to 240 pounds. It almost seemed he had blown his chance.
“Being stressed out probably,’’ Shell said of his weight gain. “Not being around football and not really working out, it all adds up eventually.’’
It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d gone through a hard stretch of life. In fact, he talks of all the hard work he puts in now as a means toward saving his daughters from what he went through.
“Just a couple days ago I heard a man say, ‘Work like a slave so your kids can live like kings,’ ” Shell said. “That’s how I’m living my life right now, working my butt off like a slave basically just so my daughters don’t have to live the kind of life I did.’’
That included being raised by a single mother, Toni Zuccaro, and living off welfare checks and sometimes not even having a place to live. Shell said that from the time he was probably 3 to 6 years old, his mother had to shuttle him from house to house of friends or relatives because they had nowhere else to go.
“No matter what, she always made sure I was fine,’’ Shell said. “Whether she was or not, I was always going to have the things I needed. It wasn’t electronic games or anything like that, it was clothes and food and a place to go so I was under a shelter.’’
Shell had that sort of a life in mind when he realized he had to buckle down and get things back in order. With Pitt out of the picture, he finally wound up at West Virginia with Gibson again.
“My mind was everywhere,’’ he said of that period. “But I just had to find the best place for me and for me to be around my daughters. I feel like I definitely picked the right spot.’’
Not everyone feels that way. There may be no more Backyard Brawl but there’s certainly animosity between the two schools, particularly the fan bases. There have been plenty of Pittsburgh-area kids who have played at West Virginia, but few have ever managed to light more fires than Shell. His family tells him about comments they get. His mom was once told she should be ashamed to wear a WVU shirt. A few even tell him directly, but not often twice.
“I’m not looking for it, but it definitely gets around to me,’’ said Shell, who probably doesn’t make the situation any better with his Twitter presence. “I guess that’s my fuel — to prove everyone wrong and to show everyone who wants me to fail that I’m not going to.’’
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Shell is back on track for good, but it certainly seems he’s matured and has a focus. For the past two years, that focus has been his family and what he can do for them. He seems to have matured.
“My family in general, they’re my world,’’ Shell said. “But my daughters, they’re my everything. Everything I do every day, getting out of bed and coming to workouts, it’s for them.
“Everything that was important [before they were born] wasn’t important anymore. If it wasn’t going to better them, then it wasn’t anything valuable to me.’’
And staying on track is the most valuable thing he can do.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.