Ohio State's Russell executes backup plan

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
1:31
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The text message arrived around 4:30 p.m. last Saturday, but Ohio State safety Anderson Russell didn't see it until after his game against Indiana.

When Russell finally got to his phone, a smile splashed across his face.

"Ball out tonight," the message read.
 
 AJ Mast/Icon SMI
 Anderson Russell came up big in Ohio State’s win over Indiana.


Russell had followed Kurt Coleman's orders in a 33-14 victory against the Hoosiers, filling in brilliantly for his close friend and fellow safety, who stayed home in Columbus to serve a one-game suspension for a late hit the week before against Illinois.

With Coleman 200 miles away, Russell reclaimed the starting job he had lost earlier in the season and turned in his best performance of the season. The senior recorded an interception and a forced fumble and tied for the team lead with six tackles, earning Ohio State's Defensive Player of the Week award for his efforts. Shortly after the game, Russell called Coleman to celebrate.

"He told me good job and everything," Russell said. "He was proud of me and I told him I missed having him out on the road. We had somebody go down with a suspect call that we all didn’t agree on, but it was something we had to go with.

"We had to have guys step up."

Coleman's absence was the latest hiccup in a season that hasn't gone exactly according to plan for Ohio State's senior safeties tandem. Russell and Coleman entered the fall having started two seasons next each other in the Buckeyes' defensive backfield, and both seemed like good bets for All-Big Ten honors in 2009.

But Russell had a rough opener against Navy, twice getting burned for touchdowns, including an 85-yarder midway through the fourth quarter. The next week, Jermale Hines occupied the starting free safety spot next to Coleman. Ohio State has employed a three-man rotation at safety, but Russell has lost playing time to Hines, who ranks fourth on the team with 19 tackles.

“It’s been a change just because I’ve been used to being in there every snap these past couple of years," said Russell, who recorded 130 tackles, 10 passes defended, three sacks and two interceptions in the last two seasons. "But we’re still winning, and I’m happy and I’m still able to contribute. I’m not upset about it or anything.

"I’m going to keep playing. It’s not like just because I wasn’t starting or playing as many snaps as [before], I wasn’t going to start letting up in practice."

He didn't let up against Indiana, setting the tone for the second half by intercepting a Ben Chappell pass on Indiana's first possession after the break. Russell also prevented a first down by hauling down Mitchell Evans for a short gain on third-and-11 in the second quarter.

"That was a good indication of the kind of young man he is," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "Everyone, when he was losing a little bit of playing time, was wondering how he would react. We knew how he would react. He’s a fifth-year guy, he’s a heck of a gentleman and a team-guy, and very focused on doing whatever the team needs.

"The team needed him to step up on Saturday, and he did just that."

The Buckeyes need Russell on Saturday against Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), even with Coleman back on the field. After facing three consecutive offenses that operate mainly in the spread, Ohio State must contend with a traditional, pro-style set from Wisconsin.

It means the tight end will be a factor, and in Garrett Graham, the Badgers boast a pretty good one.

"This is going to be a change-up," Russell said. "We’ve always got to be aware of where he is. We bring safeties down into the box sometimes, and we’ve got to guard the tight end sometimes in man coverage, too, so he’s definitely going to be a key part for us."

Russell also will be a key part for the Buckeyes, even though Hines and Coleman are expected to start at the safety spots.

"Sometimes when you make small adjustments in your player utilization, some people view that much larger than it is," Tressel said. "Anderson Russell is going to play.”

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