Advertise with usContact UsRTI Team

AJ Russell’s Path From Unheralded Recruit To Reliable Freshman For Tennessee Baseball

Tennessee baseball freshman relief pitcher AJ Russell. Photo By Emma Ramsey/Tennessee Athletics

At 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, Tennessee freshman AJ Russell looks like he was born to pitch a baseball. Watching Russell on the mound this spring it’s easy to think Tony Vitello and the Vols beat out half the SEC for the former Franklin High School standout.

However, Russell was anything but a high end recruit coming out of high school. The second lowest rated recruit in Tennessee’s 2022 signing class, Russell didn’t commit to the Vols until late in the recruiting process.

Armed with a self-deprecating nature, Russell’s “mind is blown” by the role he’s earned out of Tennessee’s bullpen in his freshman season. But as Tennessee opens postseason play at the SEC Tournament Tuesday afternoon, the tall right-hander is eying even more.

Russell is one of the Vols’ biggest x-factors and he’s only scratching the surface of what he can achieve.

More From RTI: See Tennessee’s Projected Starter For SEC Tournament Opener Against Texas A&M
How Russell Fell Through The Cracks As A Recruit

AJ Russell doesn’t feel disrespected because he slipped through the cracks and didn’t have an abundance of big time college baseball offers.

It’s actually quite the contrary. He’ll tell you about how he “wasn’t very good” early in his high school career or how his stuff wasn’t overpowering even at the high school level.

“I threw a lot of strikes and got people out somehow,” Russell reflects. “I don’t know how but I did.”

But there were external factors that also contributed to Russell not being a major recruit. He was a high school sophomore living in Oregon when COVID-19 hit. College baseball recruiting is often regionalized and Tennessee didn’t know of him until he moved to Franklin the summer going into his junior year.

“COVID hit and we were still in Oregon and nothing was open,” Russell said. “No schools, no sports or anything like that. We had family in Franklin and they were like, ‘everything is open here’ so we went and visited and then a week later we picked up and moved.”

Moving across the country wasn’t anything new for Russell. He had already moved nearly a dozen times at that point in his life due to his mom’s job and had already lived in South Carolina so didn’t suffer the culture shock others might.

The cross country move helped more prominent schools watch him but offers didn’t come pouring in. Alabama and Vanderbilt both expressed interest but nothing materialized from either.

Tennessee recruiting coordinator Josh Elander found Russell and the Vols quickly had interest. Elander called Russell for the first time while the Vols were in Omaha for the 2021 College World Series. 

Russell visited Tennessee shortly after the team returned from Omaha and committed to the Vols over Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State and the previously mentioned SEC teams in July going into his senior season.

For Russell, Tennessee “immediately felt like home” while by that time he had become good enough for Tennessee’s staff to “want him real bad.”

“(He) was probably a late bloomer a little bit,” Tennessee assistant Richard Jackson said of Russell the recruit. “When I first saw him, my first reaction was how are we going to put some weight on him? But then you see him throw and that’s electric.”

Photo via Tennessee Athletics
How A Turbulent First Fall Led To A December Reset

Russell faced plenty of adversity in his first fall at Tennessee. He missed time with strep throat like symptoms and missed nearly three weeks due to arm soreness.

Missing nearly half of his first fall was a setback but even when he was on the mound things didn’t go perfectly.

“I kind of got shelled in the fall so it was a lot of self doubt,” Russell said. 

For Tennessee, it was the freshman nerves and lack of self belief that was Russell’s problem, not his ability.

“He struggled a little bit in the fall,” Jackson said. “You can see some of the nerves and some of that stuff then he gets sick, gets hurt, that kind of stuff.”

Russell was nervous and expected Jackson to tell him he was redshirting when they met for Russell’s fall exit interview before going home for Christmas break. Instead, Jackson had a different message.

“I told him in his exit deal ‘I don’t know if you know how good you can be. Like, I think you can be really good but I don’t know deep down how good you think you can be,’” Jackson said.

Things changed for Russell over winter break. His family went to Costa Rica and he didn’t pick up a baseball for a week, instead only lifting weights. The week gave him a mental and physical reset that would pay massive dividends.

“I don’t know why something just kind of clicked and gained a little confidence and I came back and was throwing a lot harder too,” Russell said. “Body kind of got a rest so once I started throwing harder I think confidence came from that as well. I was up in weight and … everything I was trying to do in the fall just kind of clicked all at once and I just ran with it.”

How Griffin Merritt Helped Russell Become ‘Prince Queso’

Cincinnati transfer outfielder Griffin Merritt considered it “a gift” when Russell threw him a slider in the fall.

“The dude has the longest arms in the world and it feels like when he’s throwing it’s from me to you (five feet),” Merritt said. “So I told him, you throw the hell out of your fastball and you have crazy carry. Stop babying your slider over there. … Throw your slider hard and since then it just plays off his fastball better and it’s not getting hit as much. He’s able to land it for strikes, he’s keeping guys off balance. That’s a special talent.”

Russell’s slider was 78-80 mph in the preseason but rose to 83-85 mph after the early season conversation with Merritt. It was the second of two instances that helped Russell become a confident pitcher.

The first was in Tennessee’s final preseason scrimmages known as the “pizza series.” Russell’s fastball was sitting 93-94 mph — three to four mph faster than in the fall.

“Just seeing that I was kind of surprised and in a way took confidence from that and was like ‘I can do it just as well as these guys,’” Russell said. “Basically trying to prove it to myself is really what was missing.”

The results speak for themselves. Russell has a 1.03 ERA and .53 WHIP in 26.1 innings pitched this season. Even in a smaller role in SEC play, Russell boasts a 0.90 ERA and .63 WHIP in 10 innings pitched. 

His 7.2/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched are ridiculous feats that earned him the nickname ‘Prince Queso’ from his teammates. The term is a play on Tennessee baseball’s “Ks for queso” promotion that gets fans free queso at Moe’s Southwest Grill when Vols’ pitchers combine for 10 strikeouts.

Russell’s regular season started and ended the same way. He struck out the first three batters he faced against Alabama A&M in an outing he doesn’t “remember at all” while he sat South Carolina down with three straight strikeouts to close out the Vols’ first road series win.

Russell has been a fringe weekend bullpen arm for Tennessee this season but has aced every challenge thrown his way. As Tennessee heads to the postseason, Vitello and the Vols will likely ask more from the talented freshman.

“If we’re going to make a run in Hoover and make a run in postseason play he’s going to be a big piece of what we do,” Jackson said. “In the regionals, people who you don’t think are going to help you help you a lot. He’s going to be one of those guys who we rely on and we use a lot throughout the rest of the year.”

While Russell was unknown and under the radar entering his freshman season, he won’t be that when he returns to Knoxville next fall. There is no ceiling for the tall right-hander who will pitch an abundance of meaningful innings for Tennessee the next two years.

“As long as he keeps progressing upwards he’s going to be just fine and hopefully won’t have to work another job for the rest of his life,” Jackson said.

Similar Articles


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tweet Us