Time was running out in the first half when Colorado quarterback Steven Montez scrambled to his right, and then back to his left.
Running toward the line of scrimmage, Montez threw a bullet to tight end Brady Russell at the edge of the end zone for a touchdown.
“I was probably standing in that corner of the end zone for about 10 seconds wide open, just waiting because I didn’t want to make myself too obvious to where the defense got attracted to me,” Russell said of his touchdown against Arizona on Oct. 5. “But I wanted to make sure Steven could see me, too, so I was standing back there forever.”
Similar plays where Russell had to freelance to get open led to a touchdown and two-point conversion for him in the season finale against Utah.
On those plays and many others throughout the season, the redshirt sophomore proved to be a reliable weapon for Montez and the Buffs, as he had one of the most productive seasons by a CU tight end in the past decade.
“I felt pretty good about (the season),” Russell said. “I think I made a lot of strides again. It’s kind of crazy every year how you can watch your film from the beginning of the year and the end of year and see how much different you are as a player. I definitely made a lot of strides this year.”
Statistically, the strides were obvious.
In 2018, he caught five passes for 41 yards. This season, he caught 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
Russell had the most receptions by a CU tight end since Nick Kasa’s 25 in 2012. He had at least one catch in the last eight games, the longest streak by a CU tight end since Ryan Deehan had a catch in 10 straight in 2010.
Russell, of course, benefited from a coaching change, as new Buffs’ head coach Mel Tucker utilizes the tight end as a receiver much more than previous coach Mike MacIntyre did. In fact Russell had more catches this season than all CU tight ends combined during the previous three years (18).
“It was nice,” Russell said. “It was just a part of the game again, instead of just coming in and blocking every play. It was nice having that be an option and being part of the passing game again.”
Russell’s numbers are indicative of his individual improvement, as well.
A former walk-on from Fossil Ridge High School, Russell was awarded a scholarship in 2018 by MacIntyre and proved to be a valuable blocker. This year, he took his entire game to a new level.
“Definitely (got better) at catching the ball, just because with more reps, you’re going to get better,” he said.
More so than catching the ball, Russell felt he got better after the catch.
“The first couple times, your head is always kind of crazy and you can’t see straight when you catch the ball, but by the end of the year, it just felt normal,” he said.
Russell added that he got “a lot better” as a blocker this year, especially in man-to-man blocking and pass sets. He credits CU tight ends Al Pupunu for that, because Pupunu taught him the technique and importance of firing off the ball and keeping his hands inside.
“That first, initial blow, that’ll probably be the biggest difference in your block – if you’re getting put in the backfield or he’s getting put back there. So that’s one of the biggest things that he emphasizes a lot is keeping your hands inside and being low and striking right off the bat, rather than waiting for the guy to come to you.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Russell’s development is that he’s got two more seasons in a CU uniform, and he’s looking to get even better.
“Obviously I want to get stronger and I want to get faster, but probably playing the ball in the air would be the biggest thing I think I should work on,” he said. “Work on some deeper balls and stuff, just so I have that in my repertoire if they call upon me for it.”
The Buffs are likely to call upon him, as he will be one of the team’s most experienced receivers next season. Montez is graduating, which means a new quarterback will take the reins. Just like he helped Montez at times this year, Russell hopes he can help the young quarterbacks the Buffs have in 2020.
“I sure hope so,” he said. “I like thinking I could be a big target for them, with sure hands. I’d like to think I can help them out and I’ll go catch for them whenever they want me to (this offseason). I’d like to be help as much as I can.”
Pac-12 era (2011-19) stats for Colorado tight ends:
Most catches in a season:
25 – Nick Kasa, 2012
24 – Ryan Deehan, 2011
23 – Brady Russell, 2019
16 – Vincent Hobbs, 2012
15 – Sean Irwin, 2015
Consecutive games with a catch:
8 – Brady Russell, 2019
7 – Vincent Hobbs, 2012
6 – Ryan Deehan, 2011 (twice)
Year-by-year catches by tight ends:
2019 – 31
2018 – 7
2017 – 8
2016 – 3
2015 – 28
2014 – 23
2013 – 19
2012 – 70
2011 – 33