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TAMPA — It can be difficult for a running back to get noticed while playing for a team that will likely reach the 4,000 passing yards plateau this week.
And Jefferson senior tailback Demetrius Russell is fine with anonymity. His smile tells you that, as do his words of optimism. For a kid who owns a 4.0 grade point average and reads Kurt Vonnegut in his AP literature class, Russell grasps the bigger picture.
Jefferson (12-0) enters Friday’s Class 3A region final against Ocala Vanguard just three wins from its season-long goal of bringing home the school’s first state title.
While the passing game draws most of the kudos, Russell’s development into a big-play back makes Jefferson’s offense more potent.
“He’s so smart that he understands the importance of it,” offensive coordinator Jeremy Earle said. “Knowing his role and his importance in the whole scheme of things, I think he was really able to see that and buy into it and excel.
“The game, you can see, has really slowed down for him.”
Russell, a second-year starter, enters Friday’s game as just one of nine Hillsborough County running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards this season. And he’s gotten better as the season progressed — and as opponents have tried to stop Jefferson’s passing game.
Ten of his 14 touchdowns came in the past five games. And over the first nine games of the season, Russell averaged just eight carries. In the past three, he averages just under 15.
“Whenever you get to playoff time, you’ve got to run the football,” Russell said. “I love it, playoff time, I love it. We know we’re going to do whatever it takes to win football games and that means running the ball. You have to have both this time of year. You can’t stop both. A lot of teams can’t stop either.”
Behind an experienced offensive line of five starting seniors, the Dragons have run for 217.2 yards a game, compared to last season’s 163.4-yard average. In last week’s 41-14 region semifinal win over Pasco, they ran for 259.
A lot of that has to do with the maturation of Russell, who sat out his sophomore season.
He worked hard in the weight room in the offseason and ran track in the spring, Earle said. That helped his speed — and his ability to cut on a defender improved. He’s embraced pass blocking, a necessity in Jefferson’s offense.
“He turned into a different back,” Earle said. “Last year, on a perfectly blocked play, he’d get tackled for 15, 20 yards. This year, he’s done a much better job of making that free safety miss and taking it 40, 50, 60 yards.
“That was one of our goals. I knew he was a tremendous vision back. But it was just physically he had to get a little faster and fill into his body, and he did.”
Roughly a dozen Jefferson seniors will likely sign Division I-A or I-AA scholarships in February, but Russell might be the team’s best-kept secret. He’s received interest from Middle Tennessee State, Towson, Ohio and Fordham, but said he still has no formal offers.
“If he was somewhere else, he’d be getting looked at big time,” said coach Mike Fenton, adding that West Virginia recently became interested.
Russell admits that going unnoticed does make him play with a chip on his shoulder.
“You see everybody around you and you see so many athletes on your team, and it makes you want to make plays, too,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about this team. Everyone makes each other better.”
Jefferson senior Demetrius Russell is one of just nine Hillsborough County running backs to rush for 1,000 yards this season, and out of that group, he ranks fourth in yards per carry. Here’s a look at the county’s top game breakers.
Robert Davis, Carrollwood Day 124 1523 14 12.3
Nelson Agholor, Berkeley Prep 119 1287 18 12.8
J.J. Hubbard, Robinson 138 1447 27 10.5
Demetrius Russell, Jefferson 116 1050 14 9.1
Matt Jones, Armwood 150 1182 22 7.9
Conner Powers, Newsome 243 1852 28 7.6
James Wilder Jr., Plant 147 1119 13 7.6
Cary White, Sickles 155 1128 8 7.3
Dazmond Patterson, Plant City 203 1274 13 6.4