Did Oakland Find The Fullback They've Been Looking For?
Coming into the season, everyone thought the man leading the halfback trio was going to be second year fullback Oren O'Neal.
When the Raiders signed Lorenzo Neal, the focus shifted to the idea that maybe Oren hadn't fully recovered from his season ending knee injury last year.
Ultimately, Lorenzo Neal suffered an injury that forced him to retire. It was reported that if he felt he could play again, he wanted to be a Raider again.
Coming into the season, the Raiders were faced with a dilemma in the backfield. 53 roster spots, and too many good running backs.
Gary Russell had led the team in preseason rushing, with 28 carries for 158 yards. Second year halfback Louis Rankin was making a name for himself with fans, after breaking some explosive running plays during the preseason.
The Raiders were also home to budding potential superstars Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. Not to mention team and coach favorite Justin Fargas.
While Gary Russell had a strong preseason showing, he ended up being the odd man out. Louis Rankin ended up being kept as a fourth halfback, but he would never get a regular season handoff.
Rankin was kept to return kickoffs until undrafted rookie sensation Nick Miller could return from a broken bone in his leg. Rankin's spot on the 53 man roster was short lived. He was unable to convert his explosive backfield presence over to the Raiders kick return game.
The Raiders cut Rankin after a couple unimpressive performances. They called up converted WR-DB Jonathan Holland to replace him in kick returns.
Meanwhile, starting fullback Oren O'neal was diagnosed with an ankle injury, and was removed from the starting fullback position in favor of special teams ace and reserve fullback Luke Lawton.
Lawton played ok, he never really looked great, but he did help with catching some passes out of the backfield. However, Lawton ended up with an injury as well, and the Raiders found themselves in need of a fullback against the Eagles.
Oakland made a move that semi-stunned fans, placing fan favorite and former starter Oren O' Neal on the "waived/injured list" meaning if he passed through waivers untouched by another team, he would go on IR for Oakland for the second consecutive year.
General thinking was that Oren was too banged up, and needed another year to rehab his knee and new-found ankle injury.
With an open roster spot, Oakland made a call to former Steelers short-yardage plow and preseason rushing leader Gary Russell.
Coach Tom Cable had developed a special bond with the player during offseason workouts and training camp. Cable came to admire his work ethic and the way he was willing to do whatever his coaches asked to help the team.
The decision to cut him from the original roster was a difficult one, but the decision to bring him back when needed was a no brainer.
A bit under-sized for a fullback at only 5'11" and 216 pounds, Russell would have to do. There simply put was no other option.
What they didn't expect was to find a new version of a Lorenzo Neal; a converted halfback with All-Star potential as a fullback.
Russell proved he was a very versatile player on Sunday against the Eagles.
Coach Cable raved about him in the aftermath of the Raiders stunning win over the Eagles:
"Man, oh, man, he gave us a lot of explosiveness in there and knocked some guys around in there pretty good. He was able to seal a couple of run lanes and caught the ball well. The thing that he does well, that people don’t quite understand is, he’s a really good pass protector, and it showed up yesterday in some of their pressures."
During his initial visit with Cable this offseason, Cable asked Russell a very interesting question. Tom asked Gary, "What’s the difference between here (Oakland) and Pittsburgh?"
Russell replied, "Man, y’all got a lot more talent than we had in Pittsburgh, but talent doesn’t win games."
Russell said he and Cable started breaking it down and Russell told him, "If the guys can get in there and throw their bodies on the line every play we could have a great team."
On Sunday, Russell was able to grab five catches for 55 yards in the Raiders win, including the final catch and run for a first down that sealed the victory. He also did a great job as a run blocker, he was able to use his technique and leverage to really get under some Philly defenders and delivers some nice pops.
He led Raiders halfbacks Justin Fargas and Michael Bush to the Raiders highest rushing output since the opening night game of this season.
So you tell me Oakland Raiders fans, is Russell the next Lorenzo Neal? Can he be the best Oakland fullback since Zack Crockett?
Tim Who?: www.fanhuddle.com/OaklandRaiders
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