There was a moment last fall, fleeting yet seemingly pivotal, when it looked as if Colorado actually was making an attempt to rediscover the benefits of having a sure-handed tight end making plays in the middle of the field. And Brady Russell was the reason why.
It’s no secret the Buffs’ offense under former coach Mike MacIntyre considered tight ends little more than an extension of the running game, an extra blocker whose pass-catching skills would only be considered a bonus if that bonus was actually cashed in once in a while.
Briefly last season, Russell was all too happy to cash in. With the Colorado Buffaloes playing their first of three games without star receiver Laviska Shenault at No. 15 Washington, Russell helped CU fill that void by collecting four receptions for 23 yards as the Buffs put an early scare into the Huskies.
Russell’s time in the spotlight was didn’t last. The Fort Collins native (and the nephew of former CU star and Denver Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell) caught just one more pass the rest of the season in MacIntyre’s tight end-starved offensive approach. Yet the Buffs’ roster configuration at the end of spring practice had Russell as the most experienced among CU’s tight end corps, and he isn’t the only one in his position group riveted by the prospects of new coach Mel Tucker’s vow to utilize tight ends in the passing game more frequently than once every few games.
“I’m always happy to do my job, but it is fun when your job includes catching the ball,” Russell said. “Now that I’m a little older, I’m trying to lead my other tight ends and trying to bring us closer. We all want each other to see.”
The watered-down version of Tucker’s new offense on display during the Buffs’ spring game didn’t necessarily highlight the tight ends. Russell grabbed two passes for 11 yards, and the tight ends that recorded receptions — Russell , Jalen Harris, CJ Schmanski, and Darrion Jones — combined for six catches for 37 yards. Given CU tight ends have caught just 17 passes over the past three seasons, that spring game production might still be considered a feast.
Still, given Tucker’s vow to make the Buffs a tougher bunch of football players, it perhaps was not a surprise that first-year tight ends coach Al Pupunu said Russell’s biggest spring hurdle was adjusting to more meticulous blocking schemes.
“We’re really stressing what he needs to fix, and a lot of it is in the striking part and blocking out in space,” Pupunu said. “He hops a lot when he’s gathering, so we’ve got to work on is striking a guy with his feet under him. But he gives a hundred percent in whatever he does. He’s been working on it, trying to work, the right technique. Which is awesome. He gives all he has and that’s really nice.”
Russell agreed, admitting the promise of a bigger role in the offense has been balanced by the challenges of mastering the new, more demanding blocking schemes.
“The plays aren’t too hard of an adjustment, but it’s the technique just with a new position coach,” said Russell, who will be a third-year sophomore next season. “Just blocking in the open field, or how I’m going to come down and block and help double-team on the line or linebackers, I’m just working different techniques than I used to and I’m getting used to that. It’s more minor things, but that can make it harder because you have little habits you have to break. You need to critique your own fundamentals you’ve learned in the past and change them a little bit. It’s an adjustment I’m sure but I’m getting used to it.”