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August 15, 2012

Russ transitions from student to teacher

The three greatest running backs in RMU history are studies in contrasting styles. The late Tim Hall, the founding father of talented backs in Joe Walton's system, was a perfect blend of power and speed. Capable of running over tacklers in goal-line situations and blazing down the sideline, Hall was the standard bearer. The man who succeeded him as the program's all-time leading rusher, Sam Dorsett, was more pure power. Dorsett could dance if he had to and dig deep to find an extra gear, but Dorsett was just a man who would not go down.

The new man atop the list was often thought of as being too small to be a feature back. But equipped with a surprising taste for the physicality of the position, Myles Russ showcased he was plenty durable to go along with his moves and vision. Dorsett was Russ' position coach, and the two Florida backs flourished while working together.

Perhaps it's no coincidence then that Russ is encouraging his new pupils to be just like their predecessors: Unique and blessed with their own styles.

"We're not trying to fill any shoes here. Just be yourself," Russ said. "I don't want to put an expectation on my guys, just be themselves."

Just one season after Russ graduated from Robert Morris as the program's all-time leading rusher, he's back on campus as a graduate assistant, coaching the running backs. Russ flirted with a few opportunities to turn pro, but the combination of the lockout and other circumstances pushed him closer to coaching.

"I always wanted to coach. Even if I had the opportunity to go play football, I wanted to come back and coach. This was an easy decision with Sam going," Russ said. "Now I'm just trying to give back as much as I can, everything I learned with Dorsett and my years of playing. It's a good opportunity to get my guys ready to go."

When Dorsett left for an opportunity with St. Francis (Pa.), Russ was on the short list of potential graduate assistants who could come in and coach. He quickly said yes, enrolling in the graduate program for instructional leadership with a concentration in sports management, making it the second time in his football career that he'll follow in Dorsett's footsteps.

"They won't let me forget that," Russ said with a grin. "Walton calls me Sammy sometimes, just by accident. It's all good. He led the way and now I'm following in his footsteps. It just shows how good Robert Morris is, bringing back guys who are helping out. It's weird, but I'm happy for the opportunity."

Just like several of his players are getting used to college ball for the first time, Russ is getting used to being a coach. That includes taking a different approach to the game than he had as a player in order to best serve his players.

"As a player, I had more of a feel than knowing what everyone else is doing," he explained. "As a coach, now you have to tell them what to do, why they're doing it, whether you're going inside-out or outside-in, and know what the fullbacks are doing. But it helps me because I know they're feeling. I went through the same camp not too long ago."

Russ has been tasked with improving a running game that had just one player go over 100-yards in a game last season: Quarterback Jeff Sinclair. The ground game struggled, grinding the offense to a halt. along with emphasizing the unique abilities of each player, he's trying to get them to be prepared to take advantage of every hole on the field.

"You can't miss certain holes, because there won't be a lot, especially against the better teams," he said. "You're not going to get everything, so if you miss something, you might not ever get it the rest of the game."

Russ had an elite fullback in Jeff Link blocking for him much of his career, so he knows the value of the fullback in Walton's offense. With holdovers Nick Groat and Ryan Thermil at the top of the depth chart, along with converted linebacker Marty Thomas, Russ is optimistic about the fullbacks' future despite all three being banged up.

"I had Groat as one of the ones I brought up a little bit as a senior," he said. "Thermil is going to be a good player as well. At least they know the stuff, and when we get them back in there, they're going to be okay."

Russ is also working with two freshmen fullbacks, Corey Garry and Luke Zearing.

"I'm loving my freshmen," he said. ""They're getting an opportunity, thrown into the fire a bit with guys banged up. We only had two fullbacks for the whole day (Monday), so they were done. They had no back-up. They had to play."

The focus, though, has mostly been on the running backs. Robert Morris had just one game with a 100-yard rusher last season, and that was quarterback Jeff Sinclair. The starting back in spring ball, Grayling Sanders, transferred over the summer, leaving the Colonials with a smattering of experience spread between Deontae Howard, Justin Brooks, and William Quarles. Robert Morris moved Evan Taylor to running back after a year at corner and a year injured, and also has freshman Kenny Davis in camp.

"Everybody brings something different to the table. With Evan, he has great explosiveness. We have to get him more mentally prepared, being a DB coming over here," Russ said. "Deontae is more power. I'm making him finish runs. That's what he has to bring to the table. Other guys like Brooks, it's about getting him going some more reps, and then Bill might be our third down guy."

Russ said with such diverse profiles in the backfield, the focus has been getting them to sharpen their specialties before adding on additional abilities.

"They have to get what they do best right as we can try to get better," he said.

With three freshmen and two converted defensive players among the guys in the backfield, Russ has had to emphasize their ability to grasp Walton's pro-style offense. Russ played as a true freshman, and the hope among some outsiders was that Davis would follow in his footsteps. But Russ understands the difficulty of trying to take hold of an opportunity on the field while still learning.

"In the beginning, I think it's one of the hardest things to get. But one thing I'll say is Kenny Davis is one of the smartest guys on the team right now. He gets everything. He's just kind of nicked up right now," Russ said. "The fullbacks are doing a great job right now, as well, the freshman guys. It's hard to make an impact as a freshman, but once you get that opportunity, you have to do it as best of possible."

The two scrimmages will be key for the Colonials backfield. Russ said he'll be looking to make sure his backs pick up the right routes and depth during pass plays, as well as blocking, during the scrimmages. He'll also be focusing on the running backs' ability to read defenses, as well as a sharpness to their unique talents.

"And no mental mistakes," he said. "Get that covered and we'll be okay."


ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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