All Temple's Chapelle Russell could do was smile, which the redshirt junior is doing a lot of these days.
When it was mentioned to him that he had no business playing like the ball-hawking linebacker the team thought it was getting after a standout career at Lakewood (N.J.) High, Russell momentarily became reflective.
"It is a blessing and I am taking every day one at a time," Russell said outside the locker room after Temple's 24-17 overtime win over previously unbeaten Cincinnati on Oct. 20. "You are never 100 percent during the season and you are only 100 percent the first day of training camp."
Except Russell was far from 100 percent on the first day this year.
One of the best-conditioned players on the team, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Russell entered the season having recovered from a torn ACL in his right knee for the second consecutive year.
Both times he had the surgery in November. As a redshirt freshman, he was hurt during practice before the 11th game of the season. Last year he played nine games before he needed the same knee repaired again.
Russell's competitive nature is demonstrated by the fact that he returned for the opening game of the next season after both surgeries.
Last year he had five tackles in an opening 49-16 loss at Notre Dame. This year he had six solo tackles and four assists in the opening 19-17 loss to Villanova.
Both times, he had insisted he would be back for the opener. "It is about maintaining and trusting your process," he said. "You have a process you have to follow, and it is going to lead to success."
That has been the case for Russell, who is part of a linebacking unit with players who run like defensive backs.
Russell is fourth on the team with 46 total tackles. He was recently selected as a Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year nominee.
During the preseason, Russell seemed disappointed when the coaches held him out of both intrasquad scrimmages.
"He thought he was ready two months after surgery," Temple coach Geoff Collins said.
Collins insists that he hasn't been surprised at how well Russell has played for the Owls, who are 5-3, 4-0 in the American Athletic Conference and visit No. 9 Central Florida in an AAC showdown on Thursday night.
"He is special athlete and one of the elite linebackers in our conference, probably in all of college football," Collins said.
Senior cornerback Rock Ya-Sin is in first year with the Owls after transferring from Presbyterian College. He said what stuck out to him when he enrolled in January was Russell's work ethic and character.
"He is a really good player," said Ya-Sin, who has emerged as Temple's top NFL prospect. "He's one of the best guys on the team, if not the best guy."
Back home at Lakewood, L.J. Clark — Russell's high school coach — has watched Russell's comeback with great interest. He has been to a few Temple games and maintains a close relationship with his former player, who starred at both quarterback and linebacker as a senior.
"Chapelle is one of those kids who wants to prove people wrong, who doubted his ability to come back a second time," Clark said.
Putting on his coaching hat for a moment, Clark evaluated Russell's performance this season.
"He is playing lights-out," Clark said. "He is not second-guessing his knee, and as the season goes on, he is getting better and better."
Russell said it hurt more to stand on the sidelines at the end of the last two seasons than it did to suffer the injuries in the first place.
"Being able to sit back and watch every day from the sidelines, that definitely hurt," said Russell, who was awarded a single digit number (3) during the preseason for his toughness and dedication to the program. "That is what you love to do, and it was taken away."
Now he is back and Russell says he dreams of playing football in the NFL. "I definitely want to play at the next level," he said. "I have to keep doing what I have been doing and turn it up a little more."
It's hard to imagine Russell turning things up much more. He plays with a controlled fury on the field. Russell is his own biggest critic and even he is surprised at how positive things have been this season.
"It has been real satisfying, but I am not satisfied," he said. "I have got to keep going."
Collins said during Monday's AAC media call that running back Ryquell Armstead, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, will be a game-time decision for Thursday's game at UCF. He said the same about defensive lineman Freddie Booth-Lloyd, who missed last game. He was wearing a boot on his left foot. … UCF coach Josh Heupel said quarterback McKenzie Milton would also be a game-time decision. Milton, last year's AAC offensive player of the year, missed the Knights' 37-10 win at ECU with an undisclosed injury.