Walking to the field for a practice last month, one of Brady Russell’s teammates pointed out to him that he was nearing the end of his final spring in college.
“I was like, ‘Huh, this is the last one ever’ and I didn’t notice it,” said Russell, Colorado’s sixth-year senior tight end. “It’s a surreal feeling just because at this point it kind of feels like it’s never ending.”
It’s been a while since Russell first came to CU in the summer of 2017 as a walk-on from Fossil Ridge High School.
A two-time first-team all-conference selection as a defensive end in high school, he also played some at tight end and was his team’s MVP twice. Despite not having a scholarship from CU, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Matt Russell, who was an All-American linebacker for the Buffs, winning the Butkus Award in 1996.
With one more season to play, Russell has already left his own indelible mark on CU. Named the Buffs’ offensive scout team player of the year in 2017, he earned a scholarship during fall camp in 2018. By the end of that season, he was a starter.
He enters this season with 38 games and 28 starts under his belt and he’s developed into one of the better tight ends in the Pac-12. Last season, he led the Buffs in receptions (25) and receiving yards (307).
Russell has spent the offseason trying to be even better, though.
“It’s been really, really good,” he said of the offseason. “I kind of got to grow a lot more in my pass game and understanding the different things I can do. That’s probably where I’ve seen the most growth.”
In spring, Russell said he focused on “hand placement in my blocking and also having more vertical footwork instead of horizontal. I’ve definitely improved a lot in both categories. Coach (Clay) Patterson has helped tremendously.”
Clay Patterson was hired as CU’s tight ends coach in January and there may not be a better coach/player fit than Patterson and Russell.
“It’s kind of like having another me in the room,” said Russell, who shares a love of country music with his new position coach. “We’re very similar — the way we think, the way we talk; our vernacular even in the meeting room.”
Patterson spent the previous four years at Minnesota, where he coached Ko Kieft, a sixth-round selection of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month.
“I left a guy that loved country music and being violent and hitting people and had long hair and had this image,” Patterson said. “(Russell) is just like what I came from and he’s made this transition for me very smooth.”
Patterson is the fifth tight ends coach Russell has had at CU, starting with Gary Bernardi in 2017-18. He had Al Pupunu in 2019, Taylor Embree in 2020 and Bryan Cook last year.
“I think I’ve benefited a lot, even from the order of things,” Russell said. “Coach Bernardi, who I had first, he was an O-line guy for so long and he was such a big fundamental guy, as is coach Patterson. I hadn’t played tight end before I got here, really, so getting Bernardi and then moving on to Pupunu, who was an NFL guy, and he had a little bit different taste of the game and on and on down the line. Each person it kind of built up to who I am now. So I definitely have a lot of appreciation for all the coaches that have come through.”
Russell, who will turn 24 a few days before the season opener, is now doing a bit of coaching of his own. Although he has a lot of experience, there is almost none among the rest the group. Russell is backed up by redshirt freshmen Caleb Fauria, Erik Olsen, Louis Passarello and Austin Smith. True freshman Zach Courtney will arrive in the summer.
“I think Brady takes a lot of pride in being the older guy in the room of what this tight end room is going to be when he leaves,” Patterson said. “You talk about a kid that walked on and then has become one of our best players on this football team. I love being around him every day and he challenges me every day. … He’s such a positive person, too. He’s just a light when you’re around him and he leads this football team in a positive way.”
Russell has certainly embraced a leadership role, along with other veterans, on the team, and it’s important to him that the young tight ends develop into quality players.
“It’s coming along well,” Russell said of the tight end room. “They all grew a ton (in spring) and we definitely need a ton more growth still over the summer and through fall camp. But they came farther along than I would have ever imagined under coach Patterson and me trying to help as much as I can.
“I want to leave it in a good place.”
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