Russell Ellington was a top-rated wide receiver as a junior at Homewood-Flossmore High School, and played quarterback out of necessity as a senior. But Illini coaches believed he would fit better at linebacker.
"I came in as an offensive player, but they were worried about my weight and getting big. So they thought I could be a real athletic linebacker and use my offensive skills and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball. I played a run-stopping safety last year, so they just moved me down to the box.
"All my life, I've played different positions. I started out at fullback. I didn't actually play quarterback until my senior year of high school. So I've played all positions except lineman throughout my career. It wasn't that hard making the adjustment. I don't mind where they put me, as long as they put me on the field I'll play it."
The 6'-2", 225 pound athlete won the competition among the freshmen and has seen the field at the WILL linebacker spot and all special teams except field goals.
"When I was recruited, they told us one of us was gonna contribute this year, and whoever got it down pat would play. So at camp I studied as hard as I could and tried to learn from the older guys. It's paying off." Still, playing linebacker takes a different mentality and physicality than quarterback or receiver.
"I'm starting to learn the system a little bit more and become more comfortable with hitting guys and being more physical, so I've been getting a little more playing time at the WILL.
"Obviously, when I came in I wasn't physical enough. I'd never played the position, so my reads and my fits weren't as good as they're supposed to be. But with the help of Coach and the other linebackers, I've got that down pretty good. I still need to work on my reads and just reacting instead of thinking out there."
"Yeah, I learned all three positions at camp so I can go in at any position. So right now we have three good linebackers in (Rodney) Pittman, Miller and (Martez) Wilson, so I just try to help whenever I can."
Ellington's versatility makes him capable of handling all aspects of his position.
"I like to think I'm balanced. I can cover a slot receiver, and I can start helping in run support. We're trying to be a fast linebacking corps, a fast defense. Fast defenses win."
Russell's former high school is starting to churn out a number of major college football prospects. He believes he know why.
"We had a great team last year. We still have some great underclassmen there. Mike Buchanan (senior), John Thibideau (junior), Zach Fulton (Xavier's junior brother) and a lot of other players are coming out of that program. Back in the day, we used to be like an individual team, but we started to play more as a team. We learned that as you start to win, you get more recognition. So that's what's happening."
Despite his one-time pledge to the Hawkeyes, Ellington is now Illini through and through. He'd like to see his younger friends join him.
"I've been the biggest recruiter out here, trying to get them to come to the University of Illinois."
However much he plays this year, Russell Ellington is gaining experience and looks forward to the future.
"It's fun. It's good getting a lot of experience for next year and down the road so we can become a better team."