Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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But, then again, neither were the others from North Shore High in the Houston area when they signed with the Rebels’ football team.
Russell, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end who verbally committed to UNLV last week, only had eight catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns last fall for North Shore. He didn’t catch any passes and wasn’t part of the regular playing rotation in 2011 as a junior.
However, those numbers don’t tell the entire story about his potential.
Russell didn’t start focusing full time on football until last spring; he also played basketball at North Shore. Turns out the skill set that helped him make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore have translated to the gridiron — the ability to leap high for a rebound is comparable to hauling in a pass while being closely defended.
“He has great upside,” North Shore coach David Aymond said. “He is still learning and will develop much more.”
You can’t blame UNLV for taking a risk on someone from North Shore.
The Rebels' best running back, Tim Cornett, and wide receiver, Devante Davis, each also played at North Shore, which is a respected Houston program often recruited each year by more than 100 colleges. It posted a 13-2 record in 2012.
And, remember, Cornett didn’t crack the varsity team at North Shore until his senior year.
At UNLV, he became the first rusher since 1981 to lead the Rebels in rushing yards three straight seasons, gaining 2,345 yards with 26 touchdowns entering his senior season next fall.
Seeing the success of Cornett and Davis was one of the reasons Russell picked UNLV over offers from Colorado, Texas State, Prairie View A&M and Southeastern Louisiana. He is especially close with Davis, who had 61 catches for 854 yards and four touchdowns last year as a sophomore.
“Devante helped influence me on UNLV. He really likes the environment down there and (sold) me on it,” said Russell, who is graded as a two-star recruit out of five stars by evaluating site rivals.com. “He was telling me some of the good things about playing there. They let you make plays. He told me not to pass this (opportunity) up.”
The pipeline from North Shore to UNLV was started by Rebels wide receiver coach Cedric Cormier, who was one of the best all-time players in North Shore history. In 1996, he was the Houston area’s offensive player of the year and has several contacts in the area from starting his coaching career with a pair of two-year stints at Texas high schools.
“What makes UNLV attractive is the staff they have,” Aymond said. “They do a good job of developing players. They are great teachers and they have a lot of patience. They are great role models for kids, and the players can talk to them about any situation.
“Cedric’s senior year, he was one of the best players in the greater Houston area. For the prolific player he was, and the talented person he was, he is even more dynamic as a person.”
Cormier scouted North Shore’s spring game last year and immediately noticed Russell — for more than his impressive stature. While Russell wasn’t one of the team’s stars, he wore jersey No. 14 — Cormier’s number at North Shore..
“He came up to me after and (explained) how he was watching me because I had his number and wanted to see what I could do,” Russell said.
Cormier was clearly intrigued. UNLV coaches aren’t allowed to talk about recruits until a letter of intent is received on signing day in early February.
Russell may be a work in progress, and he needs to work on his blocking, but he has a skill that most tight ends lack from his days on the basketball court.
“Anytime the (football) is around me, it’s like getting a rebound when the ball comes off the rim,” he said.
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said last fall he expects to sign 15 to 17 players for the 2013 recruiting class. They’ve already received letters of intent from five junior college transfers. Rivals, which tracks recruiting for each school, lists another 11 who have committed. However, one of those commitments, two-star running back Kani Benoit of the Phoenix area, is expected to visit Cal this weekend, according to the Arizona Republic.