The Aggies aren’t exactly a team short on storylines this spring. Wide receiver Jeff Fuller turned down the NFL draft to come back for his senior season and has dominated on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Christine Michael is trying to work his way back from a broken leg he suffered mid-season, and the offensive line has seen several players rotate positions and spots in the depth chart. Yet, with all of that happening, the biggest story of the spring has probably been the play of a walk-on outside linebacker.
He did log quality minutes in one outing last year. Following the death of his grandmother, Russell got his first serious playing time as an Aggie in A&M's crucial late season game at Baylor. He played well in the game, even recording a sack of Robert Griffin III.
This spring, Russell has taken another step forward, and more than seized on the opportunity presented with the departure of Miller.
Nobody has summed up Russell’s play this spring as well as his coach Mike Sherman did earlier this week.
“He’s an extremely gifted kid,” said Sherman. “Number one he works real hard at it and he’s very determined, he’s extremely strong and he’s fast. He’s fast off the edge. I wouldn’t put him quite in Von Miller’s category but he’s getting up there. He’s a very difficult guy to block. Our young tackles who played last season in the Big 12 and did a pretty decent job struggle against him. He’s been quite a challenge for (the offense) this spring.”
Coming into spring practice, one of the big questions facing the Aggie defense was replacing Von Miller. Russell talked about embracing that challenge in his approach to practice.
“Von (Miller) was a great player,” he said. “Those are going to be some big shoes to fill and just coming into this spring I wanted to give it my all and leave everything on the field and give everything up for my team. I know next year we are going to come out and rip up this field, rip up that field (signaling to Kyle Field), rip up every field we are going to be on and compete for that Big 12 championship.”
According to Russell, his preparation to this spring was simple.
“I tried to watch as much film as possible and before the spring started I would write down stuff and text my coach about little things and prepare the best I could. I can always improve my whole game, everything can always be improved,” he said.
This week, even with the outside linebackers back at full strength, it was Russell getting the majority of the first team reps at the JOKER position. Though he’s a walk-on, Russell said his approach each day is the same as any other player, and that just because some guys are on scholarship doesn’t mean he adjusted his expectations of himself.
“Being a walk-on is no different than being a scholarship player,” he said. “We all have the same heart and the same beat. We come out here every day with everyone else, grinding and fighting for everything. My expectation was to come out and earn a starting spot. I’m going to keep fighting my tail off every day because there are guys right behind me like Damontre Moore and Sean Porter and everyone is competing for the same job. The best thing I can do is keep giving everything I’ve got and leaving all of it on the field every practice, every day.”
Last year, with the All-American Miller holding down the spot at JOKER, the outside linebacker positions were basically two different positions with not much overlap. However, this year, the players are working at both the JOKER and SAM positions. Russell talked about the change this year.
“It’s kind of the same basic idea but we are trying to get adapted to knowing both the SAM and JOKER spot in case coach calls for a certain play where we move guys to opposite sides of the ball, we know what to do,” he said. “We are throwing in different schemes and different blitz packages but its all the same overall concept. We are trying to perfect it and mold it to where we can pound the offense whenever we want to.”
The junior from Midlothian, Texas said that besides the scheme, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has also brought a change in mindset to the Aggie defense from when Russell was on the team as a freshman.
“Our maturity has improved greatly. Whether it’s going to class, our comradery in the locker room, it’s so much closer than it was in the past. The coaching staff that has come in now has impacted us so much, and they don’t take any crap from anybody,” he said. “We know we are supposed to go to class, don’t fight, and things outside of school like going to Northgate and partying isn’t going to be permitted.”
He added, “We all have a role on this team and if we want to win championships and do the right thing, we have to be all-in for this team. That goes for on the field and off the field and that’s all there is to it. You can’t be half in, half out. You have to be on the boat or get out of the way.”
With the previously mentioned Moore and returning linebackers Charlie Thomas and Sean Porter, as well as incoming freshmen Sean Ward and Brandon Alexander all competing for playing time at outside linebacker next season, the competition looks to be pretty heated in the fall.
With the competition for starting spots, Russell said that it pushes the entire group to get better, and that you can see everyone working hard even off the field.
“It’s up for grabs,” he said. “We are all trying to push ourselves. You can feel it in the meetings that we are trying to get better.”
After practice on Thursday, Russell was one of a number of walk-on players filming spots urging the fans at the spring game to vote for him as the 12th Man for the opening game of next season against SMU.
However, even if he wins the vote, the moniker of the “12th Man” wouldn’t quite fit Russell. He’s not a walk-on trying desperately to crack into the special teams two-deep, nor is he a practice squad guy trying to give the scholarship players a good show.
What he is is probably the biggest story of the spring. He is the type of player that fans love, offensive linemen hate and that makes the quarterbacks thank God at least once a day that they’re wearing black jerseys. And, if his performance this spring carries into the fall, he might be a starting linebacker.
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