- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Finding a more underappreciated quarterback than LSU's JaMarcus Russell must rate up there with finding a golf course that would bring Tiger Woods to his knees.
If anybody has a claim, it might be the quarterback on the other sideline Saturday when LSU heads into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for a game, one way or the other, that will shape the SEC race on both sides.
After all, QB Chris Leak's reward for leading No. 5-ranked Florida to a 5-0 record and throwing 14 touchdowns along the way was to get booed earlier this season by his own fans.
While there might not have been any overt boos to deal with, Russell entered this preseason having to reassert himself as the Tigers' starter.
At least, that was the public stance of LSU head coach Les Miles, who curiously left the door open as to whom would be his starter. On the surface, it had quarterback controversy written all over it with three more-than-capable candidates -- junior Matt Flynn (the hero in last season's Peach Bowl demolition of Miami), redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux (the multidimensional high school phenom considered by many to be the nation's top prospect in 2004) and Russell.
Never mind that Russell led the Tigers to the SEC championship game last season while carving out a 14-2 record as a starter and engineering six fourth-quarter or overtime wins during his career.
Despite what Miles was saying publicly, behind the scenes at LSU there was really no debate. Russell was the Tigers' quarterback. But his absence in the Peach Bowl and Flynn's impressive showing heated up the debate among fans on the Internet message boards and radio talk-show airwaves.
All the while, Russell never doubted himself or how everything would play out once he returned. He missed the spring while recovering from the separated shoulder he suffered in the SEC championship game and a wrist injury that required offseason surgery.
He hurt his wrist in the Florida game a year ago, but continued to play. The injury only worsened, and by the end of the season, the tendons in his wrist were shredded.
Even with the bad wrist, he finished third in the SEC in passing efficiency.
"I go out there and do my best," said Russell, who has thrown 10 touchdowns this season while completing 70.4 percent of his passes. "No matter what was being said, I knew I was going to be that guy regardless. I was also going to be Matt and Ryan's biggest cheerleader and continue to work my butt off to get in there and get the job done."
The knock against the hulking 6-foot-6, 252-pound Russell in the past has been his decision-making, especially when he feels pressure. His interception in the Tennessee game last season was the big blow in allowing the Vols to rally from a 21-0 halftime deficit.
And earlier this season, Russell took a costly sack against Auburn and failed to throw the ball in the end zone on the final play.
But there have been just as many clutch throws, like the game-winning 39-yard touchdown pass to Early Doucet to cap a 91-yard drive at Arizona State last season and the 11-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Bowe to beat Alabama last season and clinch the Western Division title.
Russell's last trip to Florida wasn't a memorable one for him, even though the Tigers managed to overcome a pair of his critical mistakes to win 24-21 in 2004. Russell, then a redshirt freshman, threw two first-quarter interceptions that led to Florida touchdowns and a 14-0 lead by the Gators. He was replaced by Marcus Randall, who rallied the Tigers.
Admittedly, Russell was up-and-down as a redshirt freshman. But he's also been one to learn from his mistakes.
"It's going to be a lot different, and I'm really looking forward to it," Russell said. "You can tell I've matured a lot as far as game experience and as a person. I look back on that game to better myself."
Now 18-3 as a starter, Russell has thrown only one interception this season in 83 attempts. He's also coming off a career-best 330-yard performance against Mississippi State in a 48-17 rout (he tied a school record by going 18-for-20). He completed 14 straight passes at one point.
But legacies for quarterbacks aren't defined against the Mississippi States of the world. They're defined against the Auburns and the Floridas.
The Tigers (4-1, 1-1 SEC) didn't turn Russell loose until it was too late against Auburn. Instead, they were determined to keep pounding away with an ineffective running game.
Miles isn't promising that the Tigers will go to three wide receivers and throw it every down against the Gators, but he acknowledged that Russell and LSU's deep receiving corps is the best thing they have going right now.
"The key is that you take what the defense gives you and be able to take advantage of it, whether it would be in the run or in the pass," Miles said. "We are going to play our style of football from start to finish."
Don't be surprised if that style starts and finishes with Russell's big right arm.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.