Mark Story: UK's Russell runs hard with second chance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 7, 2010 

Donald Russell's "crazy week" found a happy ending.

Seven days that began with his mom publicly questioning how the sophomore running back was being handled by Joker Phillips and Co. ended with Russell beaming while surrounded by sports reporters.

A forgotten man one week ago in Starkville, the 5-foot-11, 209-pounder rambled for 110 yards and two touchdowns Saturday to spark UK to a 49-21 victory over plucky Charleston Southern.

If college is about learning — and it is supposed to be — Russell has gotten a pretty good lesson in perseverance and patience these past few weeks.

After getting back-to-back starts against South Carolina and Georgia in place of the injured Derrick Locke, things started going downhill for the West Palm Beach, Fla., product in the first half of UK's Oct. 23 game against UGa.

With the Wildcats facing a second-and-8 from their own 4, quarterback Mike Hartline tried a pitch out to Russell. The back fumbled, and Georgia recovered at the UK 5. The Bulldogs scored a touchdown three plays later.

If there is one thing football coaches loathe even more than Internet message boards, it is fumbles — especially those committed on the doorstep of a team's own end zone.

Just like that, Russell became Kentucky football's invisible back.

He did not carry the football again in that Georgia game. Last Saturday night at Mississippi State, he got a whopping one carry.

After his replacement, true freshman Raymond Sanders, was injured late, it was walk-on CoShik Williams who got the game-on-the-line playing time with the UK offense in Starkville.

In response, Russell's mom, Tanya, told Larry Vaught of the Danville Advocate-Messenger that she didn't understand why Phillips and other UK coaches had not shown her son more support.

"... when he is faced with this and not being supported or encouraged or developed by the coaching staff, this is not an Operation Win for us," the running back's mom said.

The comments set the Kingdom of the Blue aflutter.

Russell said Saturday that was not the intent.

"She didn't think it would get out of hand like that," Russell said of his mother. "She didn't mean any harm to anybody. I talked to her about it. She was afraid everyone would think she has something against the coaches. She was just trying to find out what was going on.

"She's OK. She did talk to Joker. What she said, it was nothing meant as any harm to anybody."

During the course of the week, Russell said he, too, had a conversation with his head coach.

"Everybody thought we were on different pages," the running back said. "But we were on the same page. Once I knew that, I was good to go."

At Kentucky, a school with an affinity for smallish running backs, it usually takes a committee of runners to get through a season.

Against Charleston Southern, Locke missed his third straight game with a shoulder injury. Sanders was sidelined by an abdominal strain.

So when UK first got the football, Phillips held no grudges and it was Donald Russell at tailback for Kentucky.

Though he was slowed somewhat by a back strain suffered while blocking on a kick return, Russell made the most of his chance.

On his third carry of the game, Russell roared off right tackle from the Charleston Southern 25. He seemed to have his forward momentum stalled near the 10, but refused to go down. By the time he reached the end zone, he had broken three Buccaneers tackle attempts.

The Florida product scored UK's final TD of the day in similar fashion, powering through a tackle near the 10 on his way to a 17-yard touchdown run.

"I was trying to run hard," Russell said. "You get a chance, you've got to make a statement."

His 110 yards rushing were a UK career high. His two TDs were his first of 2010. Perhaps even more important, Russell did not put the football on the ground.

"He played good," Phillips said. "He got the ball in the end zone. He made some big-time runs. He did what he had to do in this game."

Of course, there's no guarantee that Russell will play as large a role in the offense next week when UK (5-5) seeks to secure bowl eligibility against Vanderbilt.

Locke may finally return. It's possible Sanders will be back, too.

Showing that he perhaps has absorbed a lesson at the end of his "crazy week," Russell said he hoped both backs return.

"As long as we go to a bowl game," he said, "I'm happy."

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