Maroney left for the NFL a year early and the job was all Russell's in 2006. But he flunked out of school. He couldn't make it work in junior college, either, so he sat out of football last year and got fat.
Before turning pro, Russell went to the combine and ran the slowest 40 time of all running backs – 4.87 (along with a 4.84). He benched 225 pounds only nine times. He was so far out of shape that he didn't finish his workout.
The one-time future feature back at Minnesota went undrafted and signed with the Steelers, and here he is trying to get it all back at once.
Is he too dumb? Too weak? Too slow to play? Tough questions, indeed, but they are good questions to put to one of his old coaches.
"He was a great football player for us," said former Minnesota offensive coordinator Mitch Browning. "It comes down to him making the commitment. You don't rush for 1,300 yards in the Big Ten, let alone at Minnesota, if you don't have some type of talent.
"He's got to get in shape because he's powerful, he can catch the football, he can run with great vision, but he did those things at 213-216 pounds."
That, right now, is not the problem. The weight line for the 5-10 3/8 Russell reads: 215 at Minnesota; 250 after flunking out in April of 2006; 236 at the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Game in early 2007; 229 at the combine; and back where he belongs right now at 215.
No, being in shape is not the problem. It's the smart-weak-slow thing.
First of all, was he a problem for the coaches?
"No. He got dismissed from school," Browning said. "We didn't kick him off the team. He was academically ineligible, dismissed from school."
So, losing him was a blow?
"Absolutely. He was a great football player. We were very fortunate at one point in time because we had (Thomas) Tapeh, Marion Barber, Maroney and Russell. Then all of the sudden we get down to Gary Russell and when we lost him it really hurt us. Those are four guys in NFL camps and that's saying something."
Russell is the no-risk gamble in the Steelers' camp. He's not getting much work from scrimmage this spring, but he's made some quality plays, including one catch 20 yards downfield that he ripped out of a defender's hands.
Can he get his game back?
"It's a learning process right now for me," said Russell. "Being a rookie, there are a lot of guys in front of me like Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport, Kevan Barlow. I can learn something from all of them because they've all been in the league awhile. So right now it's a learning experience. When training camp comes along I'll pick the speed of my game up, but right now it's a learning process."
Learning. That's the big question. Since Russell flunked out of college and couldn't re-qualify through junior college, the big question is: Will Russell understand the playbook? Russell smiled. He understood why the question had to be asked.
"What happened at school, that was just me being lazy," he said. "It wasn't about my smartness or whatnot. I sit home and watch the Discovery Channel all day. So, it wasn't about me not having the wits or whatnot, it was just me being lazy. I obviously got the playbook at Minnesota. Now it's a little different. It's like school and football. I think I'll grasp it."
Russell averaged 6.1 yards per carry his sophomore season at Minnesota. He scored 19 touchdowns, 18 of them on the ground and most in short-yardage situations.
He was a touchdown-scoring legend in high school. He scored 29 touchdowns in both his junior and senior seasons at Walnut Ridge High, located outside of Columbus, Ohio. He was all-state and was recruited by Ohio State, but after the school had recruited yet another star running back, Russell decided there'd be less competition for a job at Minnesota. And then he met Barber, Maroney and Co.
With all of that talent, Minnesota became the only school in NCAA history that had two running backs each gain 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
"It was a great system," Russell said. "Coach Browning did a really good job. We specialized in hard-nosed football, running the ball. That was our main goal every year. The line was a big part of it. We had four or five guys off that line who went to the league. It was a pretty good line."
With a pretty good tight end.
"Yeah, and a tight end," he said with a laugh and a nod to Matt Spaeth, the Steelers' third-round pick from Minnesota.
"Spaeth was real good," Russell said. "A lot of people wrote bad stuff about him, which wasn't true at all. He was a great blocker."
Browning's best Russell memory involves both players.
"The run against Michigan to set up the winning field goal," Browning said of a 61-yard run Russell made on third-and-10. It set up a 30-yard field goal with one second left and gave Minnesota its first win over Michigan in 19 years.
"Matt Spaeth played a part in it," Browning said. "He was at the point of attack. Michigan was running a stunt and some guys didn't get to where they were supposed to be and we did a great job handling it up front and it was a great run by Russell."
Minnesota's zone-blocking schemes fit Russell's one-cut style. He sees some similarities, and one big difference, in Pittsburgh.
"It's similar," he said of the blocking. "But the NFL's a lot faster, so a lot of times you can't stretch the ball to the sideline like we used to do at Minnesota because you've got to get downhill. You've got to get used to the speed."
What about the speed? Is Russell the 4.9 guy from the combine or the guy who looks 4.4 on film?
"I was down in Miami training for the combine and I was running with 4.3 guys, right along with them," he said. "I just can't get that mental block out of me when I'm running by myself. I think I'm moving, but I'm not moving like I would be with someone running against me. I can run with a lot of guys, but by myself it's a different story."
And while we're discussing weaknesses, what about the bench press?
"I'm not too much of a weightroom guy," he said. "I've got strength on the field, but if you tell me to go in there and bench this many times, I can't do it. But if you grab a hold of me, it's a different story.
"Look, I don't get in no trouble. If I'm not in the house, I'm outside fishing or something, but I'm usually in the house."
Watching the Discovery Channel?
"Planet Earth, man. That's my favorite show right now."
Planet Earth can be great.
"Right," he said with that smile. "It makes you sit down and think about the world, how everything's going."