J.R. Russell was more than a little underrated in high school. He practically was unknown.
At Gaither, he could count his Division I-A football scholarship offers on one hand. Make that one finger.
"Louisville was the only one," Russell said. "It was a last-minute thing."
Now the Louisville senior is regarded as one of the country's top receivers. He caught 75 passes last fall for a school record 1,213 yards and eight touchdowns. The receptions total was third most in a season for the Cardinals and Russell earned first-team All-C-USA honors. In two games this season, Russell has eight catches for 82 yards. He enters Saturday's contest at North Carolina having caught a pass in 25 straight games.
"For me, it was just maturing and getting my chance," Russell said. "And when my chance came, I took advantage of it."
During his senior season at Gaither, Russell performed well enough (40 receptions) to earn second-team Times All-Hillsborough County honors, but his play was overshadowed by Gaither running back Lydell Ross, now at Ohio State. In basketball, Russell was second-team all-county, a guard who averaged 20 points.
"I wasn't expecting to play football (in college)," Russell said. "I hoped to play basketball, but everything fell through."
He ended up at Louisville by chance. "Somebody saw tape of me I think," Russell said.
He did not start out as a star. He entered college having only 178 pounds on his 6-foot, 3-inch frame. Simply, he wasn't ready to play, physically or mentally.
"I was really still just learning the game," Russell said. "I started playing in high school."
He soon gained strength and added about 25 pounds. He always could jump, but improvement came when Russell became a more physical player, he said.
His break came in 2001, when in his first college game he caught a 13-yard TD against New Mexico State. Russell finished the season with 14 catches, then added 24 as a sophomore.
In a Week 2 win at Syracuse last fall, Russell had a six-reception, 133-yard, one-touchdown performance that to this day remains his favorite moment.
"We had a new coach, a lot of people had graduated, we were coming in and nobody knew what to expect," Russell said. "We went to Syracuse and heard Big East this, Big East that, but we punished those guys."
More punishment followed.
Russell had five other 100-yard games and capped the season with three touchdowns in the GMAC Bowl.
His biggest test this season comes Oct. 14 when the Cardinals play Miami in the Orange Bowl. Russell likely will go toe to toe with Antrel Rolle, one of the country's top defensive backs.
"That's going to be a pretty good one," Russell said. "I look forward to it."
Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 226-3368 or online at niebuhrsptimes.com.