State College football’s Swiss Army Knife — a.k.a. junior Cohen Russell — knows what he’s after in 2017.
“I want to get over 1,000 yards,” Russell said without hesitation. “That should be every receiver’s goal. And then with touchdowns, I have to get over double digits.”
Russell is setting lofty expectations for himself, and the Little Lions’ primary slot receiver with Darren Sproles-esque versatility has the natural ability to back it up.
As a 10th-grader, Russell scored five touchdowns — two receiving, one rushing, one punt return and one kickoff return. He tallied 669 all-purpose yards — 155 receiving, 142 rushing and 372 returning.
Still, State College head coach Matt Lintal believes he could’ve gotten Russell the ball more in 2016 — and he expects the do-it-all weapon to capitalize on more looks this go-around.
“I believe wholeheartedly that he’s going to blow up,” Lintal said. “I looked back after evaluating all our game film last year, and I kick myself for not making sure he got more touches. ... I’m not making that same mistake again. He’s going to touch the football, and he’s going to do big things with it.”
Lintal isn’t the only one who thinks Russell is due for a breakout season. State College wide receivers coach Joe Nastasi has seen this coming for a long time.
Nastasi, a former Penn State wideout in the late 1990s, coached Russell’s flag football team a little more than a decade ago.
Nastasi watched Russell juke fellow 6-year-olds out of their shoes, putting on a show whenever he had the ball in his hands.
“When he was at the flag level, he was special down there,” the coach said. “He was able to manipulate guys and shake guys. ... You could see that at a really young age.”
Russell’s comfort with the rock only grew as the years went on. The former full-time running back started working at wide receiver in ninth grade and took a liking to the position.
At 5-foot-5, Russell doesn’t have the ideal frame for a pass-catcher — but he does have the speed. He showed that last season with an 83-yard kickoff return touchdown against Chambersburg and a 67-yard punt return score at Carlisle.
Russell proved that quickness more recently on July 29 at Temple football camp. The State College track star clocked a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, one one-hundredth better than teammate Keaton Ellis — becoming the fastest player on the team.
Of course, Ellis said he might be faster. “It was hand-timed,” Russell’s teammate said with a smile, “so it’s not for sure, for sure.”
Jokes aside, Ellis knows what kind of threat Russell brings to the slot. He understands what that speed can do for State College’s offense.
“He’s a threat,” Ellis said. “You have to watch out for him coming out of the slot, whether it’s up the middle or coming across the field. You can’t shade another guy toward me or Brandon (Clark). You have to have someone on him at all times. That just gives us space to work.”
Added Lintal: “He’s not afraid to run across the middle, catch it in a tight window and get up field immediately.”
Lintal called Russell a “security net” for the Little Lions and likened him to former State College standout and NFL receiver Jordan Norwood.
Nastasi harkened back a little further for his comparison: former Penn State running back Mike Archie.
Archie, a change-of-pace backup to Ki-Jana Carter in the mid-90s, was used in both the passing and running game. The 5-foot-8 back and 1996 NFL draft pick tallied 2,228 scrimmage yards, 14 rushing touchdowns and seven receiving scores in four years at Penn State.
As for Russell, he likes watching Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson work a defense.
“He reminds me of me,” Russell said.
That’s what Lintal and the Little Lions like to hear.
They’re hoping to see Russell put together an electrifying season, and he wants the same. Russell doesn’t have any scholarship offers yet, but he longs for that to change.
If the offseason talk is any indication, Russell’s bound to make people pay attention in 2017.
“He’s one of those guys who can catch a one-yard route and go 90,” Lintal said. “We’ve got to let him do that.”