Ex-Mariner High star starting for Notre Dame
And we're not just talking about the former Mariner High School star's 2,100-mile move to South Bend, Ind., where Russell is starting as a true freshman for the nation's fifth-ranked college football team.
Since spurning the University of Washington and several other West Coast schools in favor of a once-unparalleled power in the Midwest, Russell has not only helped take Notre Dame back to familiar heights but has done it at a new position. The running back-turned-cornerback is thriving on the defensive side of the ball, even though that wasn't his favorite place to play at Mariner.
"In high school, we played zone, so it was kind of boring," said Russell, who played safety as a junior but was used almost exclusively on offense as a senior last fall. "I never got to see my actual ability. I never really got excited about defense before."
Now he does.
Even though Russell grew up playing tailback and was recruited to fill that role at Notre Dame, he loves defense so much that he has no plans to ever switch back.
"Even if the coaches said: 'Do you want to play running back?'" Russell said via telephone this week, "I would stay at cornerback. I'm building confidence every week. With my abilities and skills, I believe I have the ability to be an elite corner."
When asked how much he has already learned since making the switch two days before the start of fall training camp, Russell said: "It's crazy. If I knew what I know now, I'd go back to high school and shut down every receiver in the state."
The Mariner coaches are undoubtedly comfortable with their decision to use Russell as a runner. He amassed more than 4,500 rushing yards and scored 50 rushing touchdowns during his prep career, and as a senior Russell had 1,293 rushing yards despite missing three games with a high ankle sprain. He had scholarship offers from 17 big-time NCAA Division I programs before his senior year, including the University of Washington -- and USC was the only one of those that was considering Russell at defensive back.
He then broke the hearts of many local fans by heading east. Although the Fighting Irish haven't finished a season among the nation's top five in almost 20 years, Russell has helped Notre Dame win its first six games -- three of those victories came over top-25 teams -- and rise to No. 5 in the rankings.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Russell showed up for summer workouts and started seeing time at a slot receiver position, where he soon decided he would probably spend his freshman season. With plenty of young talent at the tailback position, and injuries leaving the Irish with just three healthy cornerbacks heading into the fall, Russell agreed to switch positions.
"I was like, 'Whatever gets me on the field, that works for me,'" Russell said this week.
Despite a rough start -- he got beat for a 25-yard touchdown in the opener against Navy -- Russell has settled into his new position for the nation's 11th-rated defense while helping restore the Notre Dame name in the process.
Russell called it a "special" start to his first season and hasn't once looked back on his decision to spurn the Huskies in favor of Notre Dame.
"Of all the statistics, the one that mattered to me is that they've graduated 98 percent of their athletes," he said. "That number alone shows that they care about their athletes."
Notre Dame also has a special allure because of its football tradition.
"You see a lot of celebrities here," Russell said. "I've seen Tim Brown a lot. Jerome Bettis. (Actors) Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. I feel great to be a part of it. You see it on TV, and all the people saying Notre Dame this, and Notre Dame that -- and now I get to be a part of that. That's pretty cool.
"Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome. This is the place to be."
If there is one drawback to playing in South Bend, it's that Russell grew to love spending his Saturdays in the fall in an even more special place. Not being able to watch college football alongside his grandfather Sylvester Phillips has been tough. Russell and his grandfather made a routine out of sitting together on the couch on Saturday afternoons, and now Phillips is without his right-hand man.
"Grandpa wanted me to go to UW so he could go to every game," Russell said. "But deep down, he said he didn't care where I went, as long as I was happy. And now he gets to watch me on TV."
Russell might be a long way from home, but it hasn't taken him long to make his fan base in this part of the country proud.
"I'm trying," Russell said with a laugh, "to represent for Everett."
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