Sophomore Russell Ellington backed up Martez Wilson at the WILL linebacker spot as a true freshman and saw action including a start. When Wilson was withheld from the ISU game pending diagnosis of his neck problem, Ellington saw extensive action. Illinois coach Ron Zook explained the move.
"Russell showed us during the week, that when we got into the nickel stuff, he and Ian (Thomas) were the two best guys to be in the middle where it's usually Ian and Martez. Ian played the spot where Martez plays in the nickel package, and we let Russell play his normal package, his normal position."
Ellington responded with a career best output. He totaled 8 tackles to tie for the team lead, and he broke up two passes. In addition, he intercepted a pass late in the game and ran it back 68 yards. His 2009 debut was auspicious.
The Homewood-Flossmoor product lost a starting spot to Nathan Bussey during Camp Rantoul, and he didn't play against Missouri due to a one game suspension. He explained how he went from being in the doghouse to obtaining a starting spot.
"I just picked up my effort, and Coach liked the way I started hustling after the ball and getting hyper and excited every day at practice. He just liked my turnaround."
Ellington was happy to be playing.
"Everyone wants to play all the time. I'm happy at Illinois. It's the place I wanted to be since I was a little kid, so I appreciate the opportunity to play."
He showed his excellent speed on the interception return, but he tired before reaching the end zone.
"That fourth quarter, I was gassing. I wasn't used to playing, and I didn't have my second wind yet. I'll try to get it the next couple games."
The high school quarterback had a huge learning curve moving to linebacker in college. Does he regret the move?
"Oh, no. Those days are long gone. I couldn't make it at this level playing quarterback."
Of course, Ellington was undersized as a freshman, and he suffered for it on the field.
"Size and speed was a factor last year. I was rather frail coming in. But in this offseason workout program with Coach Lou (Hernandez), I worked extremely hard in the weight room. I think I'm strong enough and ready to play at this level now."
The 6'-2" athlete now weighs 230. And his strength increase is impressive.
"I'm much stronger. I made the 300 Power Clean Club this year. It was a big improvement from last year."
The Illini linebacker corps was young and inexperienced even when Wilson was healthy. That is even more of a concern now. But Ellington believes he and his teammates are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
"We come out and work extremely hard every day because we know we're inexperienced. We try to make up for it with our effort and athleticism. Martez has two years of experience, so he has been helping us along the way, so we should be ready to play."
Part of the incentive for hard work was the results from the 2008 season, where expectations were not fulfilled.
"This offseason, we worked extremely hard. Five and seven left a very bad taste in our mouths. No one is happy in this building. There's a chip on our shoulder to go out and prove everybody wrong.
"Last year, because we went to the Rose Bowl, everybody was patting us on our backs. We underachieved. I think this year, we need that chip on our shoulder to come out and prove everybody wrong."
Despite inconsistencies the first two games, Ellington believes the Illinois defense will continue to get stronger as the season goes along.
"I think this is the most athletic defense you've seen at Illinois in awhile. We're very young, so we're trying to come together as a team, as a unit."
It helps going against the Illini offense every day in practice. That offense is powerful and gives them a stiff challenge.
"Our offense is tops in the country, and they can do nothing but get us better. We know if we can perform and compete against those guys, we can compete against any offense."
Ellington isn't one to brag. But he is now an important cog in the defense, and his improvement will be essential if the Illini want to get on a winning streak.
"I'm just trying to come in, day in and day out, learn the defense and play as hard as I can to help this Illinois team."