After completing his fourth season at the University of Memphis, former Grenada High School standout J.J. Russell had a decision to make. He could finish his career in four years and go on with his life or take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the affect of the COVID-19 virus on collegiate sports. He agreed on the latter and the rest is history.
Russell finished his final season at linebacker with a career-best 123 total tackles earning him a spot on the American Athletic Conference 1st Team as Memphis finished with a 6-6 record in 2021. The Tigers were scheduled to take part in the Hawaii Bowl, which ended up being a canceled due to COVID-19 situations within the Hawaii football program. The forfeit win made Memphis 7-6 on the season.
“In the beginning, there was some hesitation to go ahead and leave,” Russell said. “It was almost to the point that I was ready to get on with my life. When I started looking at the pros and cons – it was another free year of school. It was a chance for me to go back and get my degree, which I did. It was also another chance for me to leave a legacy at Memphis developing a relationship with players in the locker room that I had never talked to allowing me a chance to become a true leader. It was also another chance for me to increase my draft stock and really show what J.J. Russell can do.”
The 2017 season was Russell’s introduction to college football and the differences between it and high school football were noticeable. Development was an ongoing process throughout his time at Memphis.
“Year one was one of transitioning from high school – playing a lot on the special teams,” Russell said. “I was enjoying my time being a freshman.”
However, his approach to the game had to change to have any chance of being successful.
“For me, it wasn’t about ‘see ball, get ball’ anymore,” he said. “You had to know what you are doing. You could no longer just play football. In that aspect of the game, the speed of the game changes. You are going up against a bunch of guys working collectively going together to run a play. All the defensive players have a job to do. One mistake may can cost you.”
Watching film was another important development tool for Russell.
“The working out and running are great, but the knowledge is so much better,” he added. “Watching film really slows the game down. I knew what the guys did before they did it. You pick up their formations and their tendencies, which helped me be a step faster.”
The freshman season was also the season that Russell suffered what proved to be his worst injury during his career. Memphis was playing UCLA in the Liberty Bowl and Russell was part of the kickoff team. During the first half, the Tigers kicked off and on the play Russell was knocked out by a Bruins’ blocker. He remembers only waking up in the team dressing room.
“I remember running out on the field with a guy named Carlito Gonzalez and how we said we were going after the ball no matter what,” he recalled. “The next thing I remember was waking up in a room with my parents. I was wondering what was going on. I figured someone hit me or I had hit someone. I remember asking someone, ‘Did I get them? My brother told me, ‘They got you this time.’”
Russell would miss two games that season because of the concussion suffered from the hit.
“I was blessed throughout my career to stay relatively healthy,” he said. “The injury from the hit was probably the worst thing I had happen to me while I was at Memphis.”
Russell played in 10 games as a freshman with eight solo tackles and an assist. He made his collegiate debut against Louisiana-Monroe.
Things began to change for Russell during years two and three with the Tigers.
“I started to mature more in years two and three and began to get more defensive snaps,” he said. “The game was still fast to me and I could tell that it is more of a mental game than a physical and athletic game. Basically, everybody is good. I had to figure out a way to separate myself both physically and mentally from everyone else. I worked out with Genard (Avery) and C.J. (Avery) training as much as we could during the offseason together. I also started to watch more film to learn about offenses and our defense at Memphis. Things got better each season.”
Having played football with now-NFL players Genard Avery and Tyre Phillips, Russell takes advantage to learn about the professional game as well as the collegiate game.
“When I’m around them, I’m like a sponge,” he said. “I soak up all the information I can. I ask them what things they wish they would have done. Genard always said, ‘It is easier to get to the league than to stay in it.’ There is someone there trying to take your job. We’ve been working for this all our lives. When you get that phone call, the easiest thing to do is step off the gas. You need to keep you foot on the gas and build a name for yourself.
During his sophomore season, Russell was the team’s seventh-leading tackler with 58 total hits. Memphis finished 8-6 losing to Central Florida in the American Conference championship game.
Another thing that aided in Russell’s development was consistency in the Tigers’ defensive scheme.
“My first three years, we had three different schemes in as many seasons,” he explained.” “It wasn’t until the fourth and fifth season that we played the same defense.”
As a junior, Russell started 14 games leading Memphis to a 12-2 record finishing with 58 total tackles. The Tigers lost to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
The following year, Memphis finished 8-3 and won the 2020 Montgomery Bowl over Florida Atlantic.
Russell is now preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft held on April 28-30. He will continue his training along with taking part in an All-Star game in Dallas and a Pro Day in March scheduled for the University of Memphis.
“I’m currently training right now,” Russell said.
On Jan. 12, he played in the College Gridiron Classic in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“After that game, I will leave for Pittsburgh for training,” Russell said. On March 23, we will have a Pro Day at Memphis. I’m still hoping for an invite to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Then, I will be home for the draft.”
In June of 2021, Russell married his wife, Amber, of Memphis. The marriage has given his life – balance.
“She keeps me on the straight and narrow and where my mind needs to be,” he concluded. “Most importantly, she keeps me in tune with God. That’s one of the biggest reasons, I fell in love with her. She is strong-willed and a big part of my life.”