On the background of Kendorean Russell’s smartphone is the picture of a “Maroon Tide.” As West Jones head coach Scott Pierson says, “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
The sting of their 49-19 loss to Picayune in the Class 5A South State Championship game will linger on Russell’s mind all through the offseason and into the 2020 season. Not because he’s a morbid guy, but because it’s his motivation. “Every time I get ready to lift weights this coming up summer, it’s my motivation. Last year, we went to their house to beat them. This year, they came to our house and beat us. I’ll take my responsibility for it and work hard so that won’t happen again,” said the sophomore linebacker.
Yes, you heard, right. Russell, the leading tackler for West Jones in 2019, is but a sophomore.
"His big game came last year as a freshman," said Pierson. "Hattiesburg's whole game plan [offensively] was to set up in a three-by-one set and make him make bad decisions. But Russell had two interceptions that game. I don't remember exactly the number of tackles he had, but it was an astronomical amount."
West Jones stunned the South favorite, Hattiesburg, 37-14 in the second round of the playoffs and later beat Picayune in South State, 21-13. Those two monstrous wins sent the Soso Stangs' to their first appearance in a 5A title game. "It was his coming-out party. He didn't doubt himself anymore," said Pierson.
Russell finished his freshman season with 94 total tackles, eight for losses, two sacks and two interceptions.
“Playing as much as I did last year helped me,” said Russell. “Seeing how hard Byron Young practiced and how hard he kept fighting in games, even if we were down, did a lot to motivate me. I try to model myself after him and how hard he worked in the weight room. Even though I’m not the best at leading, I try to be one (a leader).”
While Russell admits he's not as vocal of a leader as Young, now playing Division 1 football at Alabama, was last year in Soso, he's leading on the field stat-wise. This season, in the teams' historic 2019 campaign that saw them go unbeaten in the regular season for the fifth time in program history, Russell led the Mustangs – and Jones County – in solo tackles (110) and interceptions (four). He also finished with 12 tackles for losses, three caused fumbles, three sacks and one hurry.
Pierson credits something other than Russell’s raw physical talent and experience as a freshman to his success.
"Russell is a high-IQ kid. Not only on the football field but also in the classroom," said Pierson. "I believe he has a 4.0 GPA (Grade Point Average). He's one of those guys you can explain what you're trying to do one time, and he's able to pick it up and understand the concept. It has the tendency to put him in the right place at the right time so that he's able to make plays. It's a combination of being athletically blessed and being extremely intelligent."
Intelligence and instincts, for the most part, cannot be taught. You either have it or you don't. Russell has it, and it's allowed him to roam free, as Pierson says.
"We coach him, but we also give him the freedom to roam basically," Pierson added. "His instincts are so good. Sometimes we can over-coach a kid, and with Russell, we try not too. We give him a general idea of where we want him to be, then give him a two-way go. And usually, he's right."
A part of last year’s defense that was so good and big up-front and laden with seniors (Young, Damion Cunningham and Jon-Micah Coleman) the linebackers, including Russell, were put to the challenge in 2019.
"We were so talented up-front last year, and I still think we did a good job up front this year, but losing all those guys to graduation last year, we needed to be better in the back seven this year," said Pierson. "All our linebackers, including Russell, took it on themselves to step up, knowing we wouldn't be as good up front as we were a year ago. So, in essence, our back seven had more tackles this year than we did in previous years because those guys weren't there anymore."
"Coach challenged our defense in the pre-season," added Russell to the conversation. "They came up to me personally. Everyone was expecting our seniors to be leaders, but Coach Pierson came to me and told me I could be a leader too. That inspired me to do my best."
Though West Jones didn’t advance as far as they did a year ago under the leadership of Young, Cunningham and Coleman, reaching the title game and an overall finish of 12-3, Russell and several seniors led the 2019 team to a higher win total and percentage. The only loss of the season came against Picayune in the semifinal round of 5A. West Jones finished 13-1.
By his own doing, Russell will look at the picture of a tidal wave colored in maroon on his smartphone and remember the feeling so that it doesn't have to happen in 2020.