An increased dose of Rushel Shell may or may not have changed Pitt's fortunes in the Panthers' 14-13 loss at Syracuse Friday night, but for fans of the team, the star freshman's virtual absence was a point of contention in the aftermath of the defeat, since perhaps he could have helped kick-start Pitt's ineffective rushing attack against the Orange.
But Shell himself had a much more measured response to his limited playing time when asked about the matter this week.
"Last week, early in the week, my back was acting up so I didn't get to practice, which affected my game play," Shell said Tuesday.
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He is referring to the back spasms that kept him on the sidelines for extended portions of training camp. He experienced a recurrence of those back spasms in the week leading up to the Syracuse game, which caused him to miss practice time.
Some upperclassmen may be able to get by with less practice time, but for a true freshman like Shell, the practice time is invaluable, and he knows it.
"Physically, I was ready. But mentally I wasn't, so you can't be mad at no one," he said. "You have to be there, you have to practice. Practice is the key at the college level. If you can't practice, don't expect to play."
As a four-star running back recruit and the all-time leading rusher in the history of Pennsylvania high school football, Shell came to Pitt from Hopewell with a lot of expectations. And when he burst onto the scene with 157 yards on 23 carries against Virginia Tech, it looked like Shell was going to be every bit the back he was expected to be.
For other players, then, the news that playing time would be considerably limited - Shell logged five snaps and one carry at Syracuse - might not have been well-received. Certain segments of the fan base were distraught over his almost non-existent role, but not Shell. He understood the situation.
"I knew because you can't put someone in that didn't get the preparation at the beginning of the week. At this level it's a lot; you have to know exactly what you have to do so that you don't affect your other teammates. So coming in I knew what to expect."
Of course, understanding and accepting the situation is a bit different from enjoying it, particularly when the team was losing. It wasn't easy for Shell to watch as Pitt struggled to get its running game going and had difficulty capitalizing on opportunities inside the 30-yard line.
"It was tough, because I'm not used to just sitting on the sidelines," he said. "I always want to get in to try to make something happen or just to help or do anything I can. So it was tough at times, but I didn't practice early in the week, so I was expecting it."
Shell's back spasms aren't concerning him too much - "They told me it was just the way I was born, so there's not much I can do about it," he said - but there is another element that has to be in place for him to be fully-utilized in a game. Shell has to continue to improve his pass-blocking, a skill he didn't have when he came to Pitt and one he has had to embrace.
"I'm getting the hang of it. It's really clicking. Everything's making sense to me. I'm understanding the calls, the reads, and every day I just have to keep practicing it because you're never perfect at it. Early in the season and in camp, I wasn't anything near what I am now in pass protection. But I think they [have] a lot of belief in me in pass protection.
"In high school, I never had to do anything like that. We'd pass one time a game. So getting here and learning that, it was tough, but once I got the basic things down, then I started understanding the advanced stuff about it. Now I have my hands on it, and I should be alright."
Now Shell is looking forward to getting back on the practice field and seeing some game action in Pitt's Homecoming contest against Louisville this Saturday at Heinz Field. The Panthers are 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big East, and Shell knows the team needs to rebound in a big way.
"This season our biggest enemy is ourselves. We have to work as a team, and we go off of each other: when someone else is doing something good, the next guy wants to do something good. It's a clicking thing."
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