Toledo Rockets wide receiver Alonzo Russell.
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The post-practice scene has repeated itself often the past year.
A talented young player begins to trot off the field at the Glass Bowl before his position coach intervenes to talk. Topics range from practice habits to technical errors the player made to the importance of academics.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT Media Day at the Glass Bowl.
Alonzo Russell, University of Toledo’s precocious sophomore receiver, and his coach, Jason Candle, always are talking about something.
"Coach Candle’s always been there since day one, since he first walked into my life," Russell said. "Everything I’ve ever needed, he’s always there to help."
Russell, who earned Mid-American Conference postseason honors a year ago in a rollicking rookie campaign, is among many Candle fixer-uppers. Candle, who doubles as offensive coordinator, is developing a pattern of recruiting academically at-risk receivers and shepherding their journeys through the NCAA Clearinghouse. Corey Jones and Rodney Adams — headliners in the 2012 and 2013 classes — match that description. Years ago, at Mount Union, Candle mentored an inner-city Cleveland player named Cecil Shorts, who is in the infancy of what has the makings of a promising career with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I’ve always said what makes Jason a great coach is his ability to have great relationships with his players," Rockets head coach Matt Campbell said.
Evidenced by his frequent conversations with Russell, Candle’s work doesn’t end when the recruitment is over. The two of them chatted Monday at the team’s media day, with Candle briefly advising Russell before the player rushed off for a media interview. Their chats, Candle said, revolve around "trying to win the next five minutes and not the next five days."
Jason Candle, passing game coordinator, speaks with a Rockets player at a 2012 practice.
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Russell’s circuitous journey to Toledo from Washington, D.C. is a tale of perseverance and pain. A three-star prospect whose combination of size — 6-foot-4, 190 pounds — and athleticism attracted major college programs, Russell failed to earn the requisite academic scores to qualify for college football. He attended Milford Academy, a postgraduate school in New York, but withdrew after three months when he again failed to attain the necessary SAT score. He enrolled at Toledo for the 2011-12 school year but was unable to practice and he could not be on scholarship. To pay bills he worked at a campus dormitory.
"It’s been fun to watch him grow and mature," Candle said. "That’s why you coach. Coaching to me is the same here as it would be coaching high school or junior high. You’re mentoring young men to be better in all phases of their lives."
Candle and Campbell share a common critique of Russell, one that which they mentioned often Monday in separate interviews. To build on a freshman season in which he totaled 960 receiving yards and five touchdowns, his coaches say Russell must be more consistent. That all circles back to what Candle said about winning the next five minutes, not the next five days. Though it may be unfair to say of a freshman who spent the previous year away from football, Russell lacked consistency from game to game. He made little impact at the end of the year, never catching more than two passes in three late-season losses. Other times, like his six-catch, 152-yard performance against Bowling Green, or his nine-catch, two-touchdown effort against Akron, the kid whom his teammates label a "freak" was brilliant.
"You have a lot of talent right now in that receiver room," Campbell said of a unit that returns everyone of importance. "The guys who are playing consistently are the guys who are going to play 50, 60 plays a game. The guys that are not as consistent are the guys who will play 20, 25 plays a game."
Russell will try to avoid a repeat of the 2012 peaks and valleys. He has a mentor who will help him walk an even plane.
"That goes back to why you coach," Candle said. "You’re able to get something out of somebody that nobody else has. ... I find joy in knowing their families are proud of their kids."
NOTES: Starting defensive tackle Elijah Jones has not participated in practices because of a blood clot he sustained in the summer. Campbell is confident Jones will return, saying "I think it’s just a matter of time." ... The Rockets will unveil new uniform combinations for some games, but Campbell is cagey on the details.