WSU assistant head coach means business

MERCER ISLAND – If a picture paints a thousand words, then a quick glance at Eric Russell adds up to a tome. Washington State's assistant head coach and special teams coordinator doesn't need to utter a syllable before you know he means business. Talking with him before and after his work Friday at the Northwest Elite Camp at Mercer Island High, it was clear his countenance matches his words.

Russell is focused. Very focused. And he's hell bent on reshaping WSU's special teams.

Last season the Cougs ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in gross punting distance, punt-return yardage and kickoff coverage. One stat told the ultimate tale: allowing four kickoff returns of 90 yards or more. That badinage followed a near-decade-long run of mediocre special teams performance on the Palouse.

If the Cougs match on the field the intensity that Russell has off it when talking about the critical, though often overlooked, third element of football, then a Cougar upswing in special teams would seem destined.

Here are the highlights of our discussion with the former Tennessee and Texas Tech assistant …

CF.C: With Theron West (a running back with speed reportedly in the 4.3 to 4.4 range) coming into the program do you see him contending immediately for a spot as a return man?

Russell: "I see anybody who's got the opportunity to catch the ball and run having an opportunity. I don't know what his speed is like. We haven't got to work with the guy yet, but that is one of the key values we are looking at in the types of things he would bring. We need to find some excitement back there."

CF.C: You mentioned over the spring that there might be some offensive and defensive starters contributing on special teams this season. Are there any guys you have right now pegged to help the special teams unit this fall?

Russell: "There better be. I don't know if anyone has nailed down starting jobs but most of the starters are going to start on one or two of the special teams units and probably coverage units. Deonne Bucannon is going to start on a bunch of stuff. Chester Su'a is going to start on several. I know a group of those wideouts are going to be playing a bunch. Andrei Lintz is going to be playing a key role in things."

CF.C: Any ideas on who your gunners and kick returners will be next season?

Russell: "We're looking for them still. We'll see if (Rickey) Galvin can do any (kick-returning). We'd like to get Kristoff Williams healthy to see what he can do. (Leon) Brooks can do some things so we'll see- any of these young guys maybe … (I'd like to see) Bucannon as a gunner."

CF.C: Who is going to long-snap next year?

Russell: "Funny. I ask myself that question every day too. The three of em' (Zach Koepp, Alex Den Bleyker and Ryan Saparto) we have right now -- one of them is going to have to. There's no clear-cut guy. There wasn't a guy this (spring) season that met the standards of saying ‘Hey, I'm the guy' in this conference or on this team."

CF.C. How wide open are the special teams positions heading into fall camp?

Russell: "As far as the role of specialists, I would say (Andrew) Furney is our starting kicker, (Mike) Bowlin is our starting punter and kickoff guy. We're still searching a little bit for punt returner, kick returner and still searching at snapper. One of those guys needs to step up and say it's their deal. I told them I'll give them through the summer and we'll find out.

RUSSELL'S ROAD TO PULLMAN:
Coach Russell grew up in St. Maries, Idaho, which is about 60 miles northeast of Pullman. He was an All-State quarterback there before becoming an all-conference performer at Spokane Falls Community College. After graduating from Idaho in 1991 with a degree in public relations, he became a graduate assistant for the Vandals under John L. Smith. He then spent a year at New Mexico before making a name for himself as a special teams guru at North Texas for 13 seasons.

From there it was on to two seasons at Lousiana Tech with Derek Dooley before joining Mike Leach at Texas Tech in 2009. At Tech he was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coaches. Following the end of Leach's tenure at Tech, Russell reunited with Dooley at Tennessee. When he accepted the position at Washington State, Russell told the website CoachingSearch.com that "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."

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