With star running back Ray Graham expected to return from injury to play this season and the emergence of backup Isaac Bennett in the offseason, the Panthers' backfield is looking a bit crowded.
Enter Rushel Shell - one of the school's biggest recruits in recent memory. Shell joins a talented backfield and is hoping to break through to earn playing time in 2012. He's also become a trendy pick by national media to not only play, but make an impact. Most recently, CBS Sports named him as one of their top five freshmen to impress this season.
But an injury that's slowed him in camp coupled with Bennett's strong play are a few reasons why a big year from him might not happen. Shell is currently no higher than third on the depth chart and because of that, he was asked about redshirting by the media this week. His answer (courtesy of PittsburghPanthers.com) might actually surprise you a bit:
"At first I didn’t want to. I just wanted to get out here and play. But when I sat down and talked to some of my teammates, I realized that it’s a big process. If I got redshirted, it’d be one more year to get better, to get accustomed to the speed, to get a little plays down. So I wouldn’t be mad, but I’m still trying to compete to get out there now."
That's typically not the answer you'd expect from a true freshman expected to be a star. For one thing, it reeks of maturity. Now, make no doubt about it - Shell, I'm sure, would rather suit up this season. But he realizes the importance of a team-first attitude and knows he can make a far bigger impact a year later when Graham is gone than serving as the team's third back this season.
Fans that want to see him play will throw out the oft-quoted statistic with regularity. "Paul Chryst's Wisconsin offense once had three rushers that ran for nearly 1,000 yards each, so Shell should play," will go the argument. Well, there's some truth there as in one season, Shell did indeed have two 1,000-yard rushers and a third that finished only a few yards shy of the mark. But it's unrealistic to expect similar results right away at Pitt since the Badgers had a much stronger offensive line during his tenure there.
It may be hard for fans to not see one of the most highly-touted recruits in years for Pitt on the bench, but in the end, it's probably best for all parties involved. The Panthers can go with a combination of Malcolm Crockett and Corey Davis in that role and be no worse for it. The two aren't stars, but are capable of performing adequately in that role. And Shell will have at least three seasons of competing to be the team's lead back.
The condition to all of this is if Graham and Bennett can stay healthy. Both need to be on the field the majority of the season if Pitt wants to redshirt Shell. If either goes down with an injury or if Graham never gets all the way back, then Shell will be needed and the point is moot.
But if both are healthy, there's no reason to rush Shell onto the field this season.
For more on Pitt football, check out SB Nation blog, Cardiac Hill.