Donald Russell didn't really do anything to get demoted from the No. 2 running back spot behind starter Derrick Locke. In four games, he carried the ball 18 times for 92 yards, a respectable average of a little more than five yards per carry. He caught four passes for 44 yards, and he held on to the ball.
Yet the week of the Ole Miss game, Coach Joker Phillips decided to move true freshman Raymond Sanders ahead of Russell as the backup tailback, saying Sanders' ability as a pass catcher and perimeter runner was a better fit for what the offense was trying to do.
Russell admitted he took the news hard.
"It was a little frustrating," he said. "I talked to my high school coaches and my family and just tried to stay mentally ready."
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Russell didn't get a carry in the Ole Miss game, and Sanders was the first back off the bench in the Auburn game. Then the tide turned. Sanders wasn't able to get much going, and Locke went down with a stinger early in the third quarter.
Phillips went back to Russell, and the 5-foot-11, 210-pound West Palm Beach (Fla.) native answered the bell. His numbers (nine carries, 32 yards, two receptions, 19 yards) weren't overwhelming but were efficient and helped the UK offense continually move the chains during its second-half comeback.
UK running backs coach Larry Brinson credited Russell for the way he handled the situation.
"He struggled with it at first," Brinson said. "But that's the way it should be. He should be worried about losing some playing time, but I told him to stay positive and work his way back. He stayed positive, and when (Locke) went down, I was comfortable putting him in. He's been around here for a couple of years, played a little bit as a freshman, and it was his time to get in there and do something. I was glad to see him produce. He helped us move the ball, and I think he's ready to step in and take on a little more of a workload."
Phillips said earlier this week that Russell was bracketed with Sanders at the tailback position instead of demoted. Locke is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game with South Carolina, and while Phillips hasn't said whether Russell or Sanders will start, both will be integral parts of the game plan.
The UK running game might also have to rely more on Randall Cobb in the Wildcat formation. Cobb got a season-high 11 carries for 47 yards and two TDs against Auburn, many of which came after Locke was injured.
"We have to find a way to run the ball," Cobb said. "If you look in the SEC, the teams that run the ball and have consistent running games are usually the ones that come out with the win. We have a lot of faith in those guys. They've been able to do some good things for us, and we've got to continue to do whatever we have to do to develop a running game."
"We'll get in (the Wildcat) to see what they are going to give us," Phillips said. "If they are giving us the run game, we'll get in it to run the ball. If not, we'll get in it to throw the ball. Whether it be Locke or Donald Russell or Sanders, we ran the ball efficiently when we've done it. We got to stick to what we're doing in the run game but also get the ball to Randall a little bit more."
Russell said the demotion served as motivation in the Auburn game and will continue to do so. Russell said he also realizes that any carries he gets while Locke is down will also serve as an audition to be the No. 1 back in 2011.
"I felt like I had something I had to prove," he said. "I feel like I changed a few minds, but I still have to practice hard. That's something I'll never forget. It's always going to motivate me. You have to take the opportunities you have and make big plays, even if it is one or two carries. You just have to try and make the most of it."