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CHICAGO -- Ryan Russell paused with purpose. Purdue's senior defensive end was about to go on record and make a stand. In a career of what-could-have- been frustration, he was poised for what-will-be certainty.
“There is no if,” he said. “Ryan Russell will have a big year. That's the way it is.”
Words are easy when you're dressed to impress in a media event such as the Big Ten football gathering. It's much harder when sweat, blood and grime are part of the package as will happen in games.
But here's the reality as Purdue tried to blast away from last year's 1-11 patsy status -- Russell has to play to his potential and not to his indifference.
“Ryan Russell has to have a huge year for us,” coach Darrell Hazell said. “He had a tremendous spring. He has to play at that level for 12-plus weeks for us to be successful.”
For three seasons Russell has played on the edge of excellence. The problem -- the edge isn't good enough when you're 6-5 and 273 pounds, when you're strong enough and fast enough and athletic enough to be a difference maker, and instead settle for mediocrity.
Now, as a fifth-year senior, he insisted that's over.
“It's my last year. I will do whatever it takes. I have the ability. It's consistency through adversity that has held me back. No more of that.”
As a freshman, Russell showed promise with 33 tackles, four for loss, with a sack. As a sophomore, it was 37 tackles with 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Then, last season as a junior under new coach Darrell Hazell, Russell managed 35 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.
“I know when I was younger, it was nagging injuries,” he said. “Last season the transition to a new coach was hard for me. Losing (coach Danny Hope), I didn't know how I would take it. I'm done with that. Me and Coach Hazell have a great relationship. I have one with all the coaches. They want the best for me as a player and as a man. I want to do well for myself and for them.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson wants Russell to dominate. Specifically, he wants full-throttle effort on every play. Half-throttle play, Hudson told him, would mean plenty of sideline time.
Russell got the message in the spring. Now it has to carry over to the season. And that impact has to go beyond the on-field production.
“I want to be more of a leader,” he said. “That's being vocal and making the players to get the defense off the field on third down, or getting sacks and fumbles, causing turnovers. I want to step up and be a guy others can rally around and believe in.”
Few things rally a defense more than a sack. Russell has seven of them for his career, and would like to double that, or more.
“I've said that waiting for Game Day is like going to sleep knowing the next day is Christmas,” Russell said. “Sacking the quarterback is like opening the present you've always wanted.”
There were few presents last season, when Purdue played defense as poorly as it ever has. It allowed 38.0 points and made enough mistakes to last a decade.
No more, Russell said. The Boilers are aiming for big improvement, and if few outside the program believe it, too bad.
And then he turned poetic.
“Every season is special in its own way and has the ability to grow and be beautiful and be something different. Nothing done in past matters. The great thing about last season is it's last season. It won't help you win or lose a game.
“The goal is always to be Big Ten champs and go to the Rose Bowl. That doesn't change. Whether other people think it's realistic, that's what it is. That's what we work toward.”
On Monday, the work turns real with the start of practice. And then we'll start seeing how big Russell will play.