As has been the news for nearly a week now, presumed starting running back Rushel Shell has elected to transfer out of Pittsburgh’s football program. SB Nation’s Cardiac Hill has a detailed breakdown of the various puzzling aspects of this move, so for discussion around that front, feel free to wander in that general direction.
What we’re interested in here is where he could potentially end up (touched upon over at CH as well), and then what’s next for the Panthers’ backfield as they continue with spring practice. With little information available right now, please keep in mind this is almost entirely speculation at the moment.
Where could Rushel Shell transfer to?
Just one year ago, Shell was in high demand as one of the top-rated running back prospects in the nation, and he was expected to deliver on those lofty goals as Pitt’s featured back in 2013. Now, he’s an impressive sophomore runner with 641 rushing yards and four scores under his belt, looking for a new home where he’ll sit out a year before regaining eligibility in 2014.
The top transfer choices are the ones in closest proximity: West Virginia and Penn State, but there’s chatter that Pitt would not allow him to head to either long-time rival program. Same goes for Arizona State, where former Panthers coach Todd Graham currently resides as head coach. The Cardiac Hill guys believe Pitt would block any move to those three schools, but is that the right move? Not siding with Shell here, but based on a recent tweet from the mother of Shell’s children, it would almost seem like he’s trying to run from some issues (purely speculation). However, rewind the clock a year, and let’s remember what happened when former Terps QB Danny O’Brien was trying to leave Maryland and head coach Randy Edsall was adamant about limiting his possibilities. The backlash was pretty far-reaching and ultimately, amounted to nothing since O’Brien failed to go to a future scheduled opponent or another ACC team (he went to Wisconsin).
So with that said, where could he potentially land? The top two choices are obvious:
Arizona State: Graham and his staff initially recruited Shell, and perhaps that was part of the initial appeal to the Panthers program (beyond just local tie-ins). The Sun Devils currently have a veteran backfield set for fall, giving Shell ample opportunity to contribute come fall 2014.
West Virginia: Still local, and like many Pitt players, Shell certainly knows plenty of Mountaineers players. With the Big 12 sort of lacking for an elite back, Shell could get an opportunity to really shine in that conference, though who knows how much opportunity he’d get in Dana Holgorsen’s air-raid offense.
We’ll pass on Penn State, since I doubt Shell would want to spend two seasons under a postseason ban. But some other appealing options that haven’t really gotten traction yet:
Michigan: Between injuries and graduation, there’s a big gap to fill in the Wolverines’ rushing game. And though there’s no outward connections between Shell and UM, the prospect of playing for that caliber of program is surely an appealing one for the running back, and if he’s considering staying close to his kids, this wouldn’t be an enormous distance.
Cincinnati: Another close-by option, the Bearcats present a slight downgrade in competition in the conference-formerly-known-as-the-Big-East, but still ample opportunity to contribute come 2014. Still, with a shot to play for one of that league’s premier teams, and a real shot at an annual trip to a big-money bowl game, it’s certainly alluring.
Central Michigan: Not the most obvious choice, but with standout back Zurlon Tipton set to depart after 2013, there’s an obvious hole to fill there. If Shell’s looking for less exposure, the MAC is a great option that still allows him plenty of respect amongst NFL scouts in a few years.
… And the list could go on and on. I’m sure we’ll start learning more about Shell’s eventual landing spot in the coming weeks, but regardless of where he goes, there’s still a backfield worth wondering about back at Pitt. Without Shell, who does this group rely on for the 2013 season?
First and foremost, the ball goes to last year’s spring standout, Isaac Bennett. Though limited over the past two seasons, the rising junior could stand to do very well with more carries. For both 2011 and 2012, he averaged over 6.3 yards per carry, giving the Panthers a pretty electrifying rushing attack should he be able to keep that rate up. Additionally, Shell’s departure should open things up for both Malcolm Crockett and Ronald Jones this spring, both of whom have looked alright in very limited service.
Obviously, Shell’s a big loss for this offense, which is looking at inexperience at both running back and quarterback now. And while I won’t claim this backfield looks as dynamic as it once did, there’s still plenty of talent available with the three returning backs they’ve got. This spring will be critical to setting the tone for a strong ground game this fall, and I fully expect Bennett to embrace the challenge along with Crockett and Jones as well.