- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Darrell Russell didn’t know what to expect from himself. After all, it had been 18 months since he had strapped on pads and participated in a full NFL practice.

The Washington Redskins didn’t know what to expect either from their newest addition on his first full day with the team. Would the experience be like riding a bike or would the veteran defensive tackle look lost.

By the end of the day, all parties involved were cautiously optimistic.

“It feels like it hasn’t been a long time. It feels like maybe I took a week or two off,” said Russell, who signed a one-year, $790,000 deal with Washington on Wednesday after being reinstated by the NFL and cut by the Oakland Raiders. “I’m actually surprised. I thought with it being so long, it was going to be awkward. But I felt good today, so I even surprised myself.”

Russell, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who had not donned an NFL uniform since December 2001 while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, made a strong first impression with coaches during yesterday’s practice. But they were quick to point out that it’s too early to know how much impact Russell might have on the struggling defensive line.

“He’s not been in a live situation, but you can definitely see flashes of some big-time talent,” defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. “He’s got some real good bursts off the ball. He looks solid. It’s just hard to tell from a conditioning standpoint in a practice setting how well he could hold up right now.”

The Redskins plan to work Russell into Sunday’s game at Dallas. Coach Steve Spurrier has said Russell could line up for 15 to 25 snaps, but Nunn said the number is more likely to be 12 to 15.

Bernard Holsey is in line to make his eighth straight start alongside nose tackle Jermaine Haley (attempting to play with a cast on his broken right thumb) or Lional Dalton. Russell will rotate in and out with Holsey, playing the “three-technique” (pass rushing) position on the interior line.

“I’m a professional. I’m in shape,” Russell said. “I’m not really where I want to be right now, but I’m in enough shape to be able to play at least 10 to 15 plays. … I’ll definitely be able to hold my own, and I definitely should get better from here.”

The 27-year-old, who had 281/2 sacks during his five seasons in Oakland, said he worked daily with a personal trainer during his 18-month suspension. He would like to shed 10 or 15 pounds and get down to his ideal playing weight of 325 but said he isn’t too worried about the weight.

Actually, everyone seems to agree that Russell’s biggest obstacle won’t be trying to regain his physical form, but trying to learn the Redskins’ defense in short order.

“It’s still football,” said defensive end Regan Upshaw, Russell’s former teammate with the Raiders. “Even if you walk away from it for a while, you don’t forget how to play. You’ve been doing it since you were 8 years old. It’s just more adapting to the defense, learning what the coaches want you to do in a totally different system.”

With that in mind, Russell has been taking a crash course in defensive coordinator George Edwards’ playbook since his arrival Wednesday. In addition to attending regular position meetings, Russell has sat down one-on-one with Nunn four times in the last two days and will continue to do so leading up to Sunday’s game.

“He’s picked it up quick in the classroom and out in a slowed-down tempo,” Nunn said. “But the difference is going to be when he gets a lot of reps and gets hit a couple of times and has to think on his feet. There’s a big difference there.”

Whether Russell can recapture his old form remains to be seen. At his best, he’s an imposing force on the interior line, one who is just as adept as stopping the run as he is rushing the passer.

“When he’s at the top of his game, there’s nothing he can’t do,” Upshaw said.

If nothing else, Russell’s mere presence should have a positive impact on his teammates. Given his record of success, he figures to command plenty of attention from opposing linemen, potentially freeing up space for others like Haley and ends Bruce Smith and Renaldo Wynn to make plays.

Said Haley: “Just him being out there, knowing what he’s done in the past … of course they’re going to pay more attention to him than some of the guys who aren’t as big of names.”

Despite all the positive reviews, the Redskins realize Russell has been in uniform for all of one day. There’s still no telling how quickly he progresses from a football standpoint and whether he can earn the respect of his teammates after destroying his reputation off the field over the last year and a half.

“I think I got a good vibe from the team,” Russell said. “I’m excited to play with them and contribute as much as possible. So far I think I’ve got a pretty good grade. We’ll see how it goes. It’s only the first day.”

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