Opportunity knocking for LSU's Russell

NEW ORLEANS -- LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell isn't looking at Wednesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl game against No. 11 Notre Dame as his personal grudge match against Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, who might end up being the No. 1 player taken in April's NFL draft.

"I'm not playing against the quarterback," Russell said.

But Russell knows if he out-shines Quinn on one of college football's biggest stages, his soaring draft stock could rise even more rapidly.

In fact, Russell could do what former Texas quarterback Vince Young did to Southern California's Matt Leinart last season. Going into the 2005 Rose Bowl, Leinart was considered the best quarterback in the country. And Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, was expected to be among the first players taken in the NFL draft.

But Young trumped Leinart in their last college game, running for 200 yards and passing for 267 on 30-for-40 accuracy in a 41-38 victory. Young wiped out a 12-point deficit in the final 6 minutes, 42 seconds by running for two touchdowns to give the Longhorns their first national championship in 35 years.

More than three months later, after Young bolted Texas following his junior season, he was picked third in the NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. Leinart was the 10th selection by the Arizona Cardinals.

Some NFL scouts believe it will be difficult for Russell to supplant Quinn as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2007 draft -- if the junior decides to leave LSU with one season of eligibility remaining.

But a stellar performance against Notre Dame, followed by strong individual workouts this spring, should at least move Russell right behind Quinn and ahead of other quarterbacks such as Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith of Ohio State and Louisville's Brian Brohm, another junior who hasn't yet announced his intentions of entering the draft.

"I've never studied Brady, I've just seen him on TV the last couple of years," LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said of Quinn, who broke 36 Notre Dame passing records and won the Maxwell Award as college football's best player this season.

"The guy is a phenomenal football player. He's done it at the highest level and done it under a media microscope, which is hard to do and handle the pressure. I think he's outstanding. But I love our guy. I think [Russell] is as talented, team-oriented, coachable, tough and intelligent. I love all the attributes about him. I don't know which one is better. I love our guy, and I think their guy is one heck of a player, too."

Russell, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound native of Mobile, Ala., is a rare combination of size, arm strength and accuracy. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who tutored Tom Brady as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, compared Russell to Miami Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

"As far as the tools, it's pretty obvious to see," Weis said. "The guy is completing over 68 percent of his passes and has good chemistry with his receivers. He's impossible to bring down and just shrugs them off like they're flies. You can see he's got a very promising career of ahead him."

Russell doesn't have the scrambling ability or elusiveness of Young (Russell ran only 47 times for 126 yards this season) and prefers to stand in the pocket and throw. But Russell has proved very difficult to tackle because of his size and brute strength.

"He's a big boy. He's got about 4 inches on me, too," Irish defensive tackle Derek Landri said. "He's a legitimate drop-back quarterback, not just a scrambling quarterback. From film alone, you see a lot of defensive linemen hitting him and bouncing off. Safeties have bounced off him. Linebackers have bounced off him. That's where a lot of their big plays come from."

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter joked the Fighting Irish were using defensive end Victor Abiamiri as a scout-team quarterback in practice to best emulate Russell.

"I'm glad I'm not a defensive lineman where I might have the first opportunity to bring him down," Irish safety Tom Zbikowski said.

Russell, 21, has flourished in his second full season as No. 4 LSU's starter. He threw for 2,797 yards and 26 touchdowns and had only seven interceptions in 308 attempts. Russell completed a whopping 68.5 percent of his passes and ranked third in Division I-A in pass efficiency, behind Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Brigham Young's John Beck.

Most importantly, Russell led the Tigers to a 10-2 record and has them in position to win 11 games for the second season in a row. A victory over Notre Dame also would guarantee LSU a finish in the top 10 of the final Associated Press top 25 poll for the fourth time in five seasons.

But while Quinn is the player most credited with leading Notre Dame back to national prominence -- the Irish have won 19 games the last two seasons and are playing in their second straight BCS bowl -- Russell wasn't as readily accepted at LSU.

"He's always had to overcome everything all the way up," Fisher said. "He's not a guy that's been a silver spoon guy. He was always a silver spoon guy as far as talent, but everybody was always questioning everything about him, every time he did it. That's another thing I like about him -- he doesn't allow that stuff to bother him. He won't allow it."

Russell started 11 games last season, missing a 40-3 victory over Miami in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl because of a shoulder injury. When backup Matt Flynn threw for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns and was named MVP of the bowl game, many LSU fans wanted Flynn to start this season. Freshman backup Ryan Perrilloux, a local product from Reserve, La., and the state's Mr. Football in 2004, also has been a fan favorite the last two seasons.

It didn't help that LSU coach Les Miles didn't name Russell the team's starter until shortly before the Tigers' opener against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 2.

"Everyone has their own opinions," Russell said. "I try not to listen to it. It doesn't bother me. I'm playing for LSU and LSU only. I'm not playing for the fans. I'm just happy when they are behind me sometimes."

Russell has needed that thick skin at times this season. After the Tigers lost at then-No. 3 Auburn and then-No. 5 Florida (Russell threw three interceptions and lost a fumble at the Gators' 2-yard line in a 23-10 loss) to fall to 4-2, they fell behind Tennessee in a critical SEC game on Nov. 4.

The Volunteers went ahead 17-7 early in the third quarter when cornerback Demetrice Morley returned Russell's interception 31 yards for a touchdown. But Russell then rallied his team to three late touchdowns, including the game-winner to Early Doucet with only nine seconds left in the Tigers' 28-24 victory.

Two weeks later, LSU struggled against Ole Miss, before rallying from a 20-7 deficit with just over 10 minutes left to win 23-20 in overtime. It was the eighth time Russell led LSU on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. He has a 24-4 record as a starter.

"I just want to know who said that he had a difficult time winning the big games," Miles said. "I think he's won a lot of big games. I can't imagine anyone would say that about him. … He's just a tremendous competitor. I don't know that there's another quarterback in the country that I'd put on the field in the last drive and expect to win more than JaMarcus Russell. He expects to win, his team expects him to win, we expect those plays to be made."

And with so much at stake for LSU in the Louisiana Superdome, and the NFL draft looming, playing Notre Dame might be Russell's biggest game of all.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.