Russell settles into role as LSU QB

A year ago, JaMarcus Russell was in, then he was out and then in again.

The LSU merry-go-round at quarterback was enough to make your head spin. For Russell, it was enough to lead to wild bouts of inconsistency.

"Last year, I was in and out," Russell said. "This year, hopefully, I'll be in more than out."

As LSU gets set for Saturday's showdown with 10th-ranked Tennessee, Russell no longer is peering over his shoulder. The job is his, and he demonstrated precisely why two weeks ago in the Tigers' opener.

His 39-yard touchdown pass to Early Doucet on a fourth-and-10 play won it for the Tigers in their comeback 35-31 victory over Arizona State.

It was just the kind of play everybody in the Bayou envisioned when Russell signed with LSU out of Mobile, Ala., in 2003 as one of the most coveted quarterback prospects in the country.

After a redshirt year that first season, Russell played dueling quarterbacks with Marcus Randall last season.

Along the way, there were flashes of brilliance. But there were also moments when Russell looked like he might be operating from a different playbook than the LSU coaches.

He opened the 2004 season by bringing the Tigers back in a 22-21 overtime win against Oregon State and appeared to close the season the same way.

After watching from the bench most of the game in the Capital One Bowl, he tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Green to give LSU the lead over Iowa with 46 seconds to play. But the Hawkeyes scored on the final play of the game to stun the Tigers.

In between the first and last game a year ago, Russell was all over the place. He changed plays, botched plays and didn't exactly endear himself to former LSU head coach Nick Saban with the way he practiced.

Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who remained on Les Miles' staff, probably had a sore throat at the end of the season with all the screaming he did at Russell during practice.

Russell's penchant for ad-libbing almost always got him and the Tigers into trouble.

But before the Arizona State game two weeks ago, Fisher had a little chat with his quarterback.

"He said to play like I have nothing to lose, to just go out and play," Russell said.

Maybe those were the magic words, because Russell couldn't have played much better. He finished 16-of-29 for 232 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown. He didn't throw an interception and really only freelanced twice.

Both times, the Tigers benefited.

The first was a 28-yard pass to Bennie Brazell that led to LSU's first touchdown. The second was Russell's scrambling play to win it for the Tigers.

He rolled right and couldn't find anything. He reversed his field and headed back left. The Tigers needed only a first down, but Russell saw Doucet in the end zone and let his big right arm do the rest.

"He understands everything that's going on," Fisher said. "He's got a very good grasp of what we're trying to do -- run and pass. I think he's learned to study film, how to study film, and that takes time. I've been very pleased with his progress in his discipline to do things and his ability to prepare and understanding how to prepare.

"And then his ability's taking over, and you see the results."

Russell, who underwent minor elbow surgery in the offseason, ballooned to close to 260 pounds. Even on his 6-foot-6 frame, that was way too heavy. He's now back under 250.

And while he's never going to be a quarterback who looks to run, he doesn't cave easily to pressure.

Russell has made more than a few plays with defenders hanging onto him.

"I don't know if I have been around a quarterback who has the ability to throw it like he does," Miles said. "He can see the field and throw the deep ball extremely well. I think, potentially, if he makes the right decisions and handles the offense, that he can be a great quarterback."

The Vols know getting to Russell will be a key, especially with his arsenal of weapons on the perimeter. In addition to Craig Davis, Doucet and Green, Dwayne Bowe will be back this week after missing the Arizona State game with an ankle injury.

"That Arizona State game was big for his confidence because at times last year, he made some big plays, but he made a lot of mistakes also," Tennessee linebacker Jason Mitchell said. "This year, I think he's come into his own and is more relaxed back there in the pocket."

Relaxed, but also more prepared.

The Tigers have faith in him, now that he's making just about all of the checks at the line of scrimmage.

"What really impressed me about the Arizona State game was his ability to manage the game, control the game and stay poised throughout the whole game," Fisher said. "He didn't get flustered when things didn't go right. He kept just going on to the next play."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.