The Right Fit

Buddy Stephens coached East Mississippi Community College to the JUCO National Championship this year. In the middle of his defense was one Christian Russell, now an Ole Miss Rebel.

Buddy Stephens reached the pinnacle of junior college coaching this past year when he guided East Mississippi CC to the national title.

He is the first to admit he was blessed with some outstanding players and the chemistry was special, but since he has been the architect of the EMCC program the last seven years, the success was no accident.

"We just do the very best we can every day and see where it all shakes out," said Stephens. "We had a special team this past year and it all came together for us.

"We'll have a good team again next year, or should, but whether or not that ends up in another title, nobody knows. We'll just keep doing what we're doing and see what happens."

The EMCC defense had several major college prospects - DT Jarran Reed and DE D.J. Pettway, who are both going to Alabama - drew the most attention and grabbed the most recruiting headlines, but Stephens was always sold on his middle linebacker, Christian Russell.

He just had to get someone to believe in Russell as much as he did.

"I had told several recruiters that Christian was the real deal, but I couldn't seem to get any takers until (Texas A&M coach) Kevin Sumlin came down here personally and saw him," said Stephens. "He loved him and offered him quickly."

Christian Russell
File Photo

Meanwhile, Ole Miss was in a battle for Pettway and Reed and Russell had flown under the radar - temporarily - with the Rebels, until. . .

"I think Ole Miss had gotten the word from some sources and coaches in North Carolina, where Christian is from, the he couldn't run," Stephens said. "But when Coach (Dave) Wommack came down here to see Pettway and Reed during our practices for the JUCO championship game, he saw Christian flying around.

"Dave got excited once he saw Christian in person and then he watched some tape and was sold."

The rest is Rebel history unfolding. Ole Miss offered Russell and he accepted.

"We needed a middle linebacker and after I saw Christian in person, well, I knew he was what we were looking for," said Wommack. "He's a player, plus he has some maturity on him, which we lost when Mike Marry graduated."

Stephens was not surprised Wommack was enamored with the 6-1, 240-pound 4-star LB.

"Christian is a player," noted Stephens. "He runs well, he's instinctive, he's smart, he's durable and when he comes up to hit you, you know you've been hit.

"When he's on the football field, he means business. He not only played MLB for us, he played on all special teams and loved that too. He didn't want to come off the field. If I had asked him to play offense, he would have tried."

Russell directed the defensive traffic for Stephens, a testament to his football intelligence.

"We'd give hand signals to all of the defensive players for our calls, but Christian was the guy who made sure everyone was lined up correctly and made sure all the stunts and things we did were communicated to everyone," he continued. "He's a very bright young man. He catches on quickly and understands what you are trying to do with your system."

Stephens also does not believe Russell is limited to MLB on the major college level.

"I think he can play outside too. I think he has enough speed and range to play outside or inside. I believe middle is his best position, or at least it was here, but I think he's versatile enough to help in others ways too," Stephens stated.

The EMCC head man is glad Ole Miss took a thorough look at Russell and, in the end, opted to sign him.

"They got a good one - a hard-nosed, tough kid who is a leader and has good skills," Stephens closed. "I will be really surprised if Christian doesn't make an immediate impact at Ole Miss."

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