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Originally published Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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UW Football | Numbers prove Russo caught on

Washington senior receiver Anthony Russo spent his first 12 years in Leominster, Mass., about 90 minutes or so outside Boston, where like...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Washington @ Hawaii,

8:30 p.m., ESPN2

Washington senior receiver Anthony Russo spent his first 12 years in Leominster, Mass., about 90 minutes or so outside Boston, where like many kids he grew up with visions of becoming the next Bobby Orr.

"That's why my dad had me play hockey," said Russo, who, like Orr, was a defenseman who didn't always want to just hang back and protect the goal.

"Every now and then I'd just take it [up the ice]," Russo says with a laugh. "I was pretty good."

He hasn't touched a puck since the day his family moved from Leominster to Lakewood.

But he hasn't forgotten how to just take it and dart through a defense, a quality on almost constant display throughout his final season.

As his Washington career nears its end — and it will end without going to a bowl game — he can at least rest easy with the knowledge that he has answered all the questions about whether he could really be a Pac-10 receiver.

In fact, Russo is likely to leave UW with the most receptions of any of the receivers who signed with the Huskies in 2003 as a member of coach Rick Neuheisel's "seven-receiver" class.

With just one game left, Saturday at Hawaii, Russo has 119 career catches, tied among the receivers in the class of 2003 with Sonny Shackelford, who graduated last season after playing four seasons without redshirting.

"It means something to come out of that group with the best numbers," Russo said. "It's not something I'm worrying about, but it definitely shows that I worked hard to try to adjust to being a receiver."

Indeed, Russo wasn't officially a receiver when he signed in 2003 — he was listed as an "athlete" — unlike players such as Craig Chambers, Corey Williams, Shackelford and Quintin Daniels.

Russo had been primarily a running back at Lakes High School and played that position for his first few months at UW before switching to receiver, a move he made grudgingly at first.

"I wanted to play running back so bad, so I was kind of stubborn," he said. "I wasn't going to let anybody switch me. But it happened and I'm kind of glad it happened. I just couldn't gain that weight [he was 170 pounds at the time and is now 190]."

But other than catching some passes out of the backfield at Lakes, receiving was new to Russo.

"Running routes was not something I was good at at first," he said. "When I actually started playing my redshirt-freshman year I had a lot of dropped balls. It was a big adjustment for me. There's just so many different things you have to worry about as a receiver. What the coverage is, if it's man or zone. You have to make sure you run the right route. I was just used to 'give me the ball and take it to the 2-hole and run.' "

But he has become UW's most consistent receiver, having started all 35 games of the Tyrone Willingham era — the only player to do so — and having caught at least one pass in the last 36 games.

He has career highs in all categories this season with a team-high 46 catches for 728 yards — the most yards for a Huskies receiver since Reggie Williams in 2003 — and five touchdowns, including an 83-yarder against Oregon.

Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham said Wednesday he's not sure Russo has received the recognition his play has earned this season.

"I think he's had almost a quiet year in a sense that he's just been very workmanlike," Willingham said. "He goes out every week and gets it done for us and he's probably been our most consistent receiver and therefore I think his numbers are starting to reflect that."

Russo has also become the team's best punt returner in years, averaging 10 yards, ranking fifth in the Pac-10 and the best for a Husky since Charles Frederick in 2003.

"He's been more aggressive this year, and it's paid off," said UW special-teams coach Bob Simmons.

Returning punts, however, was another big adjustment for Russo.

While he'd done it at Lakes, he said he didn't immediately embrace it in college, though he says he now avidly anticipates every opportunity.

"I didn't like it at first — I didn't know they punted that high," he says with another laugh. "But I like it now. It's another chance for me to make a play."

So while college will end without a winning record or postseason bid, he said he'll simply relish every playmaking chance that remains.

"It's hard not ever going to a bowl and seeing guys playing in bowl games that you know," he said. "That part is hard. But I wouldn't change my experience here for anything. I love it here."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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