A talented player out of Carrollton, Ga., Russell entered last season as one of the players that figured to be headed for a redshirt season with a large group of returning veterans at defensive tackle. While that ended up eventually being the case, it wasn’t before Russell made a strong enough showing in the preseason to push for playing time said Coach Gus Malzahn.
“He’s an extremely talented guy,” Malzahn said. “He is a guy that there was talk about not redshirting early, but we felt like that he was a very athletic guy, a very talented guy. We think he has got a chance to, with a good spring, be a very good player for us next year.”
The first thing on the plate for Russell was to become bigger and stronger in order to be able to handle the rigors of the Southeastern Conference. Working with Coach Ryan Russell in the weight room as well as the trainers and nutritionists at Auburn, Russell has gained 15 pounds and now checks in at 295 pounds this spring.
Russell accomplished the weight gain and adding the right type of weight without the benefit of the traditionally hard freshmen workouts for the Tigers. Those happen on Saturday mornings before football games during the fall, but with Russell dressing out for each game because of the chance he could still play, the defensive tackle missed out on those.
The workouts weren’t the only thing Russell missed as he also missed the opportunity to get on the field and play the game he loves. With his college football experience limited to getting some reps in practice with the playing rotation getting much of the attention, he said it was a tough first year just watching, but he also learned some things along the way
“Last year was difficult because I felt like I had the ability to play,” Russell said. “My coach even told me I did, but the situation that came up, it was his better judgment, he decided it was a better idea for me to go ahead and redshirt.
“I just really picked up that I needed to work harder,” he added. “Coming from high school to college, I picked up I needed to work a lot harder to see the players that I thought were amazing players get beat sometimes and just to see that, let me know how much harder I have to work to be able to excel or do as good as I can.”
With Jeffrey Whitaker, Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley all gone and a new defensive coordinator in place for the Tigers with Will Muschamp on board, there is plenty of available playing time available for Russell. While every player’s ultimate goal is to win a starting job and become a key player, Russell said the first order of business for him is just to get on the field and help the Tigers become a better defense.
“My expectation is to contribute,” he said. “It’s our defense, it’s what we’ve been talking about. Whatever I do is to help my defense, whatever they do is to help me. It’s a defensive thing all together. I’m just trying to contribute as much as possible so we can be successful as a team.”