Little big man leads Hawkeyes
Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:57 p.m.
TAMPA - Forget finding Nemo.
The goal for Florida's defense today will be simple - find Fred.
The diminutive Iowa running back will be one of the keys to the Outback Bowl. He is listed at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds and appears even smaller. But his heart, oh that heart, makes him one of the nation's best running backs.
"He runs big," said Florida defensive back Keiwan Ratliff. "If you watch the film, you forget how small he is because he runs through tackles and he'll run past DBs. He's quick and you know he's strong."
He'll get lost behind a massive offensive line and then - bam - he's on you, past you, gone.
"We've stressed during bowl preparations that we have to stay in our gaps," said Florida coach Ron Zook. "He's so quick, if you get out of your gaps, he'll find a hole. If he's not there, he will be there."
Russell is the biggest key to the Iowa offense because the Hawkeyes try to beat you by running the ball and playing solid defense.
This season, he has rushed for 100 yards per game.
"Nobody stops them running the ball," Zook said.
But everybody was supposed to be able to stop Russell this season. The Hawkeyes lost four offensive linemen, plus tight end Dallas Clark, to the NFL.
Now, the critics said, you'll see that Fred Russell is too small to be an effective running back in the NFL.
But Russell spent the off-season just getting better physically. He changed his diet, added upper body strength and prepared to silence anyone who doubted his ability.
"They're always going to find negatives on everybody," said Russell. "As far as personal work, I answered a few questions that a lot of people were saying. Last year, they said anybody could put up the numbers I did behind that offensive line. This year, I put up the same numbers with four new starters."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he is not surprised that Russell has played so well despite the focus being on the tailback instead of departed quarterback Brad Banks.
"He's just had a fantastic year," Ferentz said. "He really started to mature two years ago when we were getting ready for the Alamo Bowl. Last year was no surprise and this year has been remarkable.
"It would be really wonderful if he could finish up on a high note. That would help us a great deal."
Today's Outback Bowl is expected to be Russell's final one at Iowa. Although he could appeal for another year because of an injury suffered as a freshman, he has already announced he plans to enter the NFL Draft.
Which means he'll have to prove himself all over again.
"You come in with a label," he said. "You've just got to show them you can be durable, just like when you come up to college. You just have to prove to them you can carry the load."
He has done that this season, averaging almost 22 carries a game. He'll get plenty of touches today, which is why finding Fred will be the goal of the Florida defense.
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