Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Air Force's Russ looks to seize second opportunity to run a defense

By Brent Briggeman Updated: February 27, 2014 at 9:23 pm 0

It was seven years ago when Steve Russ was promoted to defensive coordinator at Syracuse.

He had no way of knowing it would take so long to get back to that spot.

Russ, now the solo defensive coordinator for Air Force after two years sharing the role with Charlton Warren, hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned in the one year he spent running the defense for the Orange - a year in which Syracuse went 2-10 and gave up 34.8 points per game and 6.2 yards per play; similar numbers to what the Falcons gave up last year.

"No doubt," said Russ, a 1995 Air Force graduate. "I was a lot younger. I'm still not wise, but I was even less wise then. It was definitely a learning experience and as a coach you're always trying to improve yourself and there's an old saying that it's better to be prepared and not have an opportunity than to have an opportunity and not be prepared."

From the looks of the first few practices with Russ in charge, Air Force's defense has a renewed energy. His unit dominated the offense in live situations in practice Thursday and its play overall has been the story of spring football.

That credit has to be shared with players who have made it a point to improve upon a dismal year, and with coaching changes that have different position coaches for every group on defense.

But ultimately the credit needs to go to the top - and that's where Russ now sits as the unquestioned head of the defense.

"Basically the way it works is you lead the defensive staff," Russ said. "You lead the agenda, you drive the discussions; it's very much like an executive, I think, in an office. You kind of dictate the discussions. I'm the type of guy who loves to get input."

Among those giving input on the defense are new coaches Tim Vanderlinden and Tim Cross, who have 46 years of Division I experience.

Vanderlinden's career began in 1978 and has included stints at Colorado - including the national title run in 1990 - and 13 years as linebacker coach at Penn State. Seven of Cross' 20 years were spent under Mack Brown at Texas and two years along side Russ at Syracuse.

Russ spent time at Wake Forest after Syracuse before returning to Air Force in 2011.

While Air Force has been criticized for a lack of coaching experience beyond the academy, that is certainly no longer the case for a defensive staff suddenly booming with insight.

"You're never going to have everybody lockstep all the time, and if you do you don't have a good room," Russ said. "We welcome healthy debate and once the decision is made we all buy in and we all come out of there fired up."

Being fiery has never been an issue for Russ, who played in 24 games for the Denver Broncos and earned a pair of Super Bowl rings.

In addition to coordinating the defense, Russ has resumed the responsibility as defensive secondary coach. He had that role two years ago before switching to inside linebackers this past season.

Coach Troy Calhoun said he likes Russ in that role and feels every defensive coach is now working in his particular niche.

"He's a lot more excitable as a position coach," safety Christian Spears said of Russ. "He brings a lot more excitement to it and attention to detail."

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