PULLMAN – This isn’t a homecoming.
There are good reasons why Eric Russell decided to leave college football’s most competitive conference to aid Mike Leach’s rebuilding efforts at Washington State.
But being closer to his hometown of St. Maries, Idaho, had little to nothing to do with it.
Instead, WSU’s new assistant head coach and special teams coordinator was intrigued by the opportunity for stability, as well as the chance to team up with Leach for the second time in his career.
“I think at Tennessee, it was going to come down to how many games you won the next year, and unfortunately nobody’s got a crystal ball,” said Russell, who coached the Volunteers’ tight ends and special teams the past two seasons. “I tried to take the sentimental stuff out of it. A chance to be an assistant head coach and concentrate purely on special teams was a little bit of a unique situation.”
On a staff full of position coaches with first-time titles, Russell is a veteran. He’s coached special teams for Leach before, at Texas Tech in 2009, before Leach was fired and Russell joined Derek Dooley’s staff at Tennessee.
Russell’s hire at Washington State indicates the importance Leach places on special teams, beginning with the fact that most teams don’t have one coach whose job is to focus solely on that aspect of the game.
Russell said that idea was put into Leach’s head by his friend Al Everest, a longtime special-teams guru who coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So with a staff opening to fill in 2009, Leach hired Russell, who had spent 13 seasons at North Texas – five as the special teams coordinator – before turning Louisiana Tech into the best special-teams unit in the country.
“I think it’s just him (Leach) analyzing things and with him being so active in the offense, it gives you four coaches on offense, four on defense and adds a guy that can spend full time on special teams,” Russell said. “I think there’s been a lot more attention to special-teams play the last five, six years, because that can, bad or good, impact a game.”
So begins his task at Washington State. The Cougars ranked last in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage last season, 11th in punting and 11th in punt-return average.
Finding the right players to fix that will begin March 22, when the Cougars begin spring practices.
“We’ll look at everybody,” Russell said. “There might be a few O-linemen, maybe a D-lineman here that won’t go through some drills, but pretty much anybody that’s out there with a heartbeat is going to get an opportunity to do some of the things that we want to see them do.
“The hard part is finding the right spot for them and that first year is very hard in that. The first spring will be very hard because we don’t really know these guys.”
Russell said he’ll be visiting with NFL coaches to get input on how best to handle college football’s new kickoff rules – kickoffs have been moved up to the 35-yard line, touchbacks will come out to the 25, and players on the kicking team can only take a 5-yard running start.
Of course, none of that will matter unless Russell can find a way to reverse the inconsistencies that have plagued WSU’s special teams in the past.
“There’s going to usually be a correlation between how you finish overall and where you finish in overall special teams play,” Russell said. “So we’ve got to improve that and get these guys buying in and understanding that we’ve got to find a way this year to win a game or two by playing solid special teams, and not giving up the cheap ones.
“If you’ve got a soft kickoff coverage team, you’ve probably got a soft football team. If you’ve got some hard-knockers on there, you’ve probably got a pretty tough football team. They kind of go hand in hand.”