FB : Searching for success: Former SU assistant Russ struggles despite ideal coaching instincts

first_imgNearly two decades ago, Steve Russ was a coach on the field. When the Air Force scout team failed to execute its plays properly, the linebacker would instruct the group while playing his own position.While the graduate assistants in charge of coaching the practice unit had to ask the coaches what the players were supposed to do, Russ had the playbook engrained in his mind.He didn’t accept any missed details.‘He was a tremendous student of the game,’ said Brian Knorr, then-Air Force assistant coach and current Wake Forest co-defensive coordinator. ‘I think that was the biggest thing. Just how demanding as a player, demanding scout teams run their plays right.’Even when he was a player all those years ago, Russ was a coach in the making. While he went on to have a brief four-year career in the NFL with the Denver Broncos — winning two Super Bowls in the process — he ultimately moved on to the sidelines. Russ is known for his attention to detail and by-the-book style of coaching that requires players to focus on the smallest aspects of the game. Though Russ’ defenses have failed to find success, his knowledge has never been questioned.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThat’s why when Knorr got his first head coaching job at Ohio, he knew exactly who to call to ask to join his staff.‘His attention to detail, just the kind of young man he was,’ Knorr said. ‘Ideally, I think that’s what any coach would want on his staff.’Russ coached at Ohio immediately after leaving the NFL, before going on to coach at Syracuse and now at Wake Forest. Russ coached a struggling 2007 SU defense as defensive coordinator before leaving for a coaching position with the Demon Deacons. Russ — currently Wake Forest’s secondary coach — will return to Syracuse Thursday night when SU takes on Wake Forest in the Carrier Dome.But while his football acumen is as sharp as needed to develop a dominant defense, that hasn’t happened.Not yet, at least.The Orange had one of its worst seasons in 2007, going 2-10 and yielding an average of nearly 35 points per game. The poor showing was mostly due to a lack of experience at nearly every position on the defensive side of the ball. Syracuse gave up 418 points that season, the most in program history.The consistent failure at SU began to wear on Russ’ psyche. He forced his players to execute every detail of the play to perfection, and they did, in practice. But the results never surfaced in front of a crowd.‘I think everybody on that staff went above and beyond. I thought the kids went above and beyond,’ Russ said. ‘Of course, when you’re doing things like that, when you’re working hard like that, and you’re putting forth that kind of effort, the kids are putting forth that kind of effort, obviously losing’s frustrating.’Dowayne Davis was one of the bright spots of that season’s defense, helping to anchor the unit as a strong safety and cornerback. The former SU standout, who had a brief professional career with three different teams, remembers Russ always walking around the field with the same serious expression on his face.Russ demanded every member of the team get to the ball in every play. And he followed up on it to make sure they did, too.The Syracuse defense would sit nervously watching the screen every film session. They would survey the players in the frame at the end of a play to make sure everyone was flying to the ball. If they weren’t, they were going to have to explain why to Russ.‘That’s one of the things coach Russ harped on, is getting all 11 guys to the ball,’ Davis said. ‘You needed to be in that last frame when the film went off. No matter where you were in that film, you needed to be in that frame.’While the Orange struggled that season, the foundation for the current Syracuse defensive improvements was paved. When he was at SU, Russ ran multiple defenses, but he mostly stuck to a 4-3 scheme, the same type the Orange currently runs under defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.Last season, Syracuse had the No. 7 defense in the nation.Under Russ in 2007, the Orange wasn’t close to earning that distinction. But while the Orange couldn’t manage to find the results it was looking for in 2007, preparation was never lacking.‘Steve was one of those detailed oriented guys,’ former Syracuse assistant coach Chris White said. ‘He comes from a military background at Air Force. He likes to have fun, but he’s very serious about football. He leaves no stone unturned when it comes to preparation.’Russ moved to the other side of the ball when he went to Wake Forest, coaching the tight ends and fullbacks in 2008 and 2009, before going back to defense as the linebackers’ coach last season. Prior to this season, Demon Deacons head coach Jim Grobe, who was an assistant coach on the Air Force staff when Russ was a player, put Russ in charge of the secondary.In his first season with the Wake Forest defense in 2010, Russ watched the Demon Deacons struggle to tackle and fail to force turnovers. And time and time again, he looked on from the sidelines as opponents succeeded on third downs.‘I think it was part of youth. And part of youth comes guys aren’t physically ready, not as mature as veterans,’ Russ said. ‘I think that caught up to us a little bit, and at times we didn’t play well. We had some shots at games, and some of the wounds we incurred were self inflicted.’Wake Forest went 3-9 last season and gave up more than 50 points in three games. Russ’ linebacker corps started two seniors, both backed up by freshmen and sophomores.The Demon Deacons’ defense had no depth.Russ said he sees a difference in the way the defensive players are ‘going about their business’ this season. Of the years he has been at Wake Forest, he said it’s the best defense he has seen.‘I don’t think that there’s anyone on our schedule that we’re not capable of playing really well against. At the same time, there’s not anyone on our schedule that is not capable of beating us,’ Russ said. ‘It’s just one of those deals that you keep your focus on going out there and playing your very, very best, controlling the things that you can control.’Wake Forest can’t get much worse than it was last season, ranking 101st in the country in total defense. With Russ on the defensive side for the second year at Wake Forest, it will benefit from his experience and maturity.If what Russ witnessed in preseason holds true, then the Demon Deacons should be able to scratch out a few more wins.It’s possible that this could be the year where Russ’ intense dedication to detail and preparation could actually breed results on the field.‘Our guys are really working hard to be much better than they were last year,’ Russ said. ‘I think we’re excited about where we’re heading.’cjiseman@syr.edu Facebook Twitter Google+ Commentscenter_img Published on August 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm Contact Chris: cjiseman@syr.edu | @chris_isemanlast_img read more