Once he was recruited for college and signed a national letter of intent to attend Arizona State, Russell's academic situation did anything but improve. Because he didn't have a 2.0 grade-point average in high school, Russell had to sit out his freshman season under the NCAA's Proposition 48 guidelines and the adjustment to life as a college student was not easy.
"It was a big adjustment being independent," Russell said. "I had to get up on my own, go to classes on my own, and the teachers don't take role. I was away from home and I didn't apply myself. I thought: 'Well, I'm finally here. That's it.' I thought I could just show up and not have to worry about anything else."
In retrospect, he says attending a major college such as Arizona State may have been a mistake considering his educational background.
"I probably shouldn't have gone straight to a university," he said. "I should have gone to a JC because I wasn't ready for college. I didn't know you could go to a JC first. Nobody ever told me that in high school. It was like they were just concerned about what I did on the team.
"It was kind of like, 'Arizona State can get you in even if you don't pass the (Scholastic Aptitude Test) test.' So I thought I'd just go there and get good grades, and it didn't happen."
Despite his academic problems at Arizona State, Russell said he was in a position to become eligible to play but chose to withdraw from the school.
"I was going to summer school and I would have had the 24 units I needed, but I was feeling down about the whole thing," he said. "I wasn't confident in myself, so I just sat down with my parents and decided to come home and get myself together."
Russell said he has changed his priorities for college since attending Mt. San Antonio.
"Before it was like 90% football and 10% academics and now it's 60% academics and 40% football," he said. "Football has always come easy to me. I've always been a good athlete, but academics has always come harder. Now I'll find myself practicing on the field for an hour or two and then I'll go home and study two or three hours."
That is what convinces Russell that he made the right decision to leave Arizona State and attend Mt. San Antonio.
"At the time I didn't know it, but looking back at what's happened at Arizona State and here at Mt. SAC, it's the best thing that could have happened," Russell said.
It has also worked out for Russell as a member of the football team.
Russell said the success of the team has been an added bonus considering the program's struggles in recent years.
"I just kind of heard it around campus that Mt. SAC wasn't a good football team," he said. "But when I came in, three other coaches came in, and some good players from Pasadena came in and you could just see it turning around.
"When I came in, coming from a high school like Long Beach Poly that won all the time, I just expected to win. But in the environment around me here, it just felt like a winning program, and we have won."
Fisk said Russell has matured on the football field in the same manner that the program has developed.
"He's matured a lot, and I think last year he got better with each game," Fisk said. "He's also been on a weight program and he's gotten stronger."
At 6-2 and 226 pounds, Russell combines his 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash with exceptional strength.
"He's a tailback, but he can also block," Fisk said. "He's a big, strong guy, but he can run too. I think as the game goes on he wears people down, as most big backs will. By the fourth quarter, you can usually see the defenses dragging a little."
It is Russell's strength that he says has improved the most since last season. In fact, he bench-presses 475 pounds and squats 550.
"I worked real hard in the weight room and with my running ability this summer," he said. "Before, I didn't have an idea about the weights. It was foreign to me in high school. I feel much stronger and healthier on the field too."
He said he also has improved vision on the field this season.
"As far as my sight, I can see holes I wouldn't have seen last year and my wind is much better," Russell said. "I can carry 30 times because I'm much stronger than I was last year."
That is why Russell thinks he can reach the 2,000-yard plateau this season.
It is also why he has been recruited by most of the top college football programs in the nation for next season.
At this point, Russell says he is still more concerned about finishing the season and completing his class work at Mt. San Antonio this season. But he has set guidelines for what four-year school he will transfer to next season.
"As far as trips go, I won't take any until after the season," he said. "I'll have only two years to play two seasons, so I want to go to a place where I can start and a place that runs 70% of the time and likes to throw out of the backfield. I'm not going to a school that runs the wishbone because that's not for me.
"I also want to go to a school that pushes academics, a place where they care about whether you get your class work done. Everyone needs a push now and then in academics, and the people that do (push) are the ones that really care about you."
Russell says there are a lot of people who never expected him to be saying that after he withdrew from Arizona State.
"A lot of people thought that I was going to quit," he said. "My mom heard that from a lot of people, so she told me to just make it. My parents (Leonard Sr. and Lillian) pushed me to succeed academically and on the field. Without them, I don't know what I'd do. They've kept their faith in me."
Russell is proving every day that their faith was justified.