Ryan Russell is entering his second season as a starter at defensive feeling much more comfortable in his role.
Not only is he feeling physically more ready - after nagging ankle injuries kept him from being 100-percent last season - but now has the experience of 13 games started.
"I feel a lot more relaxed, a lot more calm," Russell said Tuesday, on the first day of spring practice. "I'm definitely more confident in myself. It's a great feeling to not just contribute but hopefully lead in the future."
Purdue is counting on Russell taking the next step in his development, particularly after a season in which the Boilers got significantly less than their usual high standard from their defensive ends. In 2011, the Boilermaker D-ends accounted for only six sacks, their lowest positional output since 1995, when they had five as a group.
Purdue wants that to change in 2012, and it starts with Russell, who showed promised as a redshirt freshman a season ago. The 6-foot-5, 264-pounder had only a sack, but was often active, finishing the year with 33 tackles, 4.5 for loss and team-highs of three forced fumbles and three recovered.
"He's gotten a lot better and has big-league potential," Coach Danny Hope said. "He's really grown into his frame and can be a very large defensive end and very athletic."
Now, Russell thinks he can be more productive because of know-how and health. Last season, a nagging ankle injury kept him limited during much of the middle of the year, but he worked over the winter to strengthen and increase flexibility in the area. The injury never kept him from starting game, but a couple times it forced him to the sideline early.
"I'm definitely getting more durable, more resilient," he said. "We bang on each other every game, every play, so definitely just being able to last and not just last but be able to go 100-percent at the beginning, middle and end of the season."
Russell ended last year well. In the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, he twice hurried Western Michigan's quarterback, plus had a forced fumble and recovered another, returning it 24 yards before fumbling himself.
He says he felt more relaxed in carrying out assignments late in the year.
"I definitely feel more instinctual, very quick reactions," he said. "Instead of thinking, I was just reacting, which is definitely a big thing for defense.
"Being able to help my teammates 100-percent at the end just showed that I'm not just out here, but that I'm getting better every play, every down, every game."
Russell's play has likely earned him a starting spot for next season, although with a new defensive coaching staff - and potentially new alignments and schemes - nothing is guaranteed. But Russell, as odd as it is to say for a sophomore, is probably Purdue's most experienced end. The Boilers also have senior Robert Maci, a backup who missed the latter half of last season with a foot injury, and sophomore Jalani Phillips, who had his redshirt pulled halfway through 2011 but played only sparingly. And senior Eric Mebane played in the bowl game, seeing his first significant action of his career.
Purdue added JUCO transfer Greg Latta, who is here in the spring, and will have two freshmen - Ryan Watson and Kingsley Ike - coming in the fall.
Russell says he think the group can built toward what Purdue's had the past dozen-and-a-half seasons, during which defensive ends become the defense's biggest play-makers.
"The standard is the standard," he said. "With every year, I feel we get closer to that. That's what we're known for: defensive ends and the defensive line, so we're really ready to try to join those guys."
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