Buffs Position Preview: Veteran Russell Leads Strong Group Of Tight Ends
BOULDER — While there are plenty of position battles on both sides of the ball in Colorado's training camp, there is at least one spot on the Buffaloes' depth chart that is a virtual lock.
That would be atop the tight end depth chart, where Brady Russell has anchored the starting spot since 2019.
Russell is entering his sixth season with the Buffs. His career has seen him make the journey from a redshirt walkon in 2017 to one of CU's most valuable players, both through his on-field performance and leadership presence.
Now, in his last year at CU, expectations are that he is ready to take his game to another level.
"We've really challenged Brady," said tight ends coach Clay Patterson earlier this week. "He's a unique talent because he can run like a receiver. He's taken that challenge. I really think he's going to have a great year this year."
If Russell can build on last year's performance, he will indeed have a good season. He led the Buffs in receptions (25) and yards (307) last season, boosting his career production to 58 catches for 646 yards.
But while he served as more of a safety valve last season for quarterback Brendon Lewis, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's new offense is utilizing the tight end more often as a primary threat.
Thus far in fall camp, Russell is thriving in the system. He had the second longest reception in last Saturday's scrimmage, a 30-yard scoring pass from J.T. Shrout, and he has consistently come up with big plays downfield throughout the August drills.
Meanwhile, he has also refined his blocking technique, an integral task for a 250-pound tight end who is often called upon to battle 300-pound defensive linemen.
And, he has taken on the role of team leader with relish.
"I told him when I got here, 'This is not my room, it's your room,'" Patterson said. "When you leave here, how do you want this room to carry on and how do you want it to be remembered? He's taken ownership in that. He's a natural leader and he does it by example, and he backs it up with his play."
That leadership will be critical for the future of the position on CU's roster. The Buffs have plenty of depth at the spot, but not many of the youngsters have much experience — something at least a few will get this year when CU drops into some of its two tight end sets.
Young players battling for playing time include Caleb Fauria, Austin Smith, Zach Courtney and Erik Olsen. Each has had solid moments in camp, and the deciding factor will likely be which displays the most consistency over the next couple of weeks.
"Caleb is a natural football player," Patterson said. "He's a kid that understands the game. He's still growing every rep but he's really done a great job and I think he's going to surprise some people. Erik is progressing, Austin is progressing and our freshmen are going to be guys that are going to be really good in the future."
One key factor will be which of those youngsters steps up in the run blocking and pass protection game.
"We need them to block because they're all very talented in the passing game," Patterson said. "But we're not only going to be that … we want to be a very physical football team."
POSITION COACH — Clay Patterson came to CU in the offseason from Minnesota, following offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Along with his four years at Minnesota, his resume also includes a two-year stint as head coach at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where he compiled a 14-8 record in two seasons. He has earned a reputation as someone who develops versatile tight ends who are equally adept as receivers and blockers.
KEY RETURNEES — Brady Russell brings 28 career starts into the season, along with 58 career catches for 648 yards and three touchdowns. Also returning are freshmen Caleb Fauria, Austin Smith and Erik Olsen.
KEY NEWCOMERS — Incoming freshman Zach Courtney could see some duty this year.
IF ALL GOES WELL … Russell will be even more of a receiving threat and force defenses to account for him on every play. Meanwhile, CU's tight ends will become integral pieces in an improved Colorado rushing attack.
Fans can now secure seats for another season of Colorado Buffaloes football. Tickets are available and can be purchased here.