Last season was a revelation of sorts for Brady Russell.
He would, after all, be called upon to catch passes at the University of Colorado.
Former CU coach Mike MacIntyre’s tight end-as-an-offensive lineman approach to Russell’s position left little opportunity to make an impact beyond the occasional key block in the run game. Mel Tucker opened things up for the Buffaloes’ tight ends last year, and while it remains to be seen how the tight ends will be utilized under new coach Karl Dorrell, his track record makes it fair to assume CU’s tight ends won’t be regarded simply as extra linemen.
Of course, fans were denied a sneak preview at the Buffs’ new offensive approach as the annual spring game was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus still might keep the Buffs off the field beyond the scheduled Sept. 5 season opener at Colorado State, but if a season unfolds in some sort of format, Russell will find himself at the front of the line in a completely retooled group of CU tight ends.
The addition of a pair of intriguing transfers along with a few athletic freshmen has bolstered the Buffs’ tight end talent pool. And though Russell, now a fourth-year junior, will be working for his third tight ends coach in as many years with the addition of Taylor Embree, he believes the different viewpoints he has absorbed from his mentors has been beneficial as his role in the offense has expanded.
“I think just as a person in general I’m pretty good at forming good relationships, and that’s a big part with your position coach,” Russell said. “When I got here, obviously coach (Gary) Bernardi, he was obviously more of a blocking-focused coach I guess you could say, because he came from the O-line and everything. But then I also learned different things from coach (Al) Pupunu last year.
“Knowing those different styles, and the different ways people do different things, you can almost pick and choose what works best for you. And then with coach Embree, he’s a whole different style as well. I think it’s only helping me.”
In MacIntyre’s final season in 2018, CU tight ends accounted for just seven receptions all year, with Russell recording five of those. Under Tucker last year the tight ends were featured much more prominently, with Russell leading the way with 23 receptions for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
This year Russell leads a group that boasts far more depth, yet it is also quite inexperienced. Sophomore Luke Stillwell, who shares the No. 2 spot at the position with graduate transfer Matt Lynch on the spring depth chart, appeared in just four games last year on special teams. Lynch, recruited to UCLA as a quarterback after starring at Legacy High School, caught just one pass with the Bruins.
Another transfer, Nick Fisher, is intriguing physically at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, but he arrives from the Division II level having never played a down at the Pac-12 level. The same can be said for freshmen Caleb Fauria and Louis Passarello.
“One thing I really like already is the camaraderie of the group. We’re real close,” Russell said. “Since we’ve been working out and stuff, we’ve been hanging out too on the weekends because we don’t want to hang out with a bunch of random people and expose ourselves and the team to the virus. So we’ve grown real close. I think some of the guys that came in, and some of the people that were already here, we’re all very different in our abilities and our skill set. So it’s exciting seeing what we might be able to do putting one or multiple of us on the field at the same time.
“For example, Matt Lynch from UCLA, he’s faster. He might be able to do some cool things. While Nick Fisher, he’s a new big guy from the Division II level, and he might be able to do some good things in the run game. It’s just cool seeing all the different roles we could play this year.”