"That was my first year to play," he said of last season. "I was on the team my freshman year but we had a senior quarterback and I really didn't get to play. I was the starter my sophomore year, but I got hurt and missed nine games after breaking my ankle."
The lack of experience was not underscored by the numbers Russell posted in 2002, as he played like a seasoned veteran while learning on the job. Running a veer offense that featured some shotgun formation, he passed for 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns against only five interceptions for the Powell Valley Indians. What's more amazing than his overall production and nearly 4-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio is his sensational 70 percent completion rate. He hit 147 of 210 attempts and picked up 300 rushing yards. He also demonstrated a capacity to extricate himself from pressure with quick feet and sharp instincts.
"We ran the veer but about the fourth or fifth game we started throwing the ball more," Russell said. "We went to shotgun more later in the season."
Powell Valley's passing attack propelled it into the Class-A state playoffs and a 7-5 record. Russell's best effort came against one of the schedule's strongest opponents as he threw passed for 434 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-31 setback against Copper Basin.
By season's end, Russell was not only named first team all-region, he had also set school records for passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.
Those numbers will never be touched even by Russell himself, who is poised for a stellar senior season. You see, Powell Valley has since consolidated with Forge Ridge High to form Cumberland Gap High School which will compete as a member of Class 2A this season. Russell will likely set a high standard for subsequent Panther signal callers to shoot at and he will undoubtedly draw a lot of scouts to the sparkling new high school.
"It's going to be good to be in the nicer facilities," Russell said of his new digs. "We'll keep our same teachers and same coaching staff. We played against Forge Ridge and we knew all of them, but it's not that big a change. It wasn't a bitter rivalry. That was with Claiborne County High School."
Russell has been working hard in the offseason to assure a smooth transition this fall, treating old rivals like new teammates while sharpening his game during the heat of long summer days.
"We've been lifting weights and doing speed drills trying to get everyone bigger and faster," he said. "We're stepping up in competition this year. We have some kids coming down from there (Forge Ridge). I'm sure there will be more when word gets out."
Word is already out on Russell and he's getting attention from a long list of big-time programs. While his standout junior campaign alerted scouts to his passing skills, subsequent camp appearances have solidified his status as a topnotch QB prospect. One of those took place at the Nike Camp held on Virginia Tech's campus last month where he impressed QB coach Bob Johnson so much that Russell received one of 50 invitations extended to audition for the prestigious Elite 11 Camp. He departs next week for tryouts in Las Vegas, attempting to qualify for the Elite 11 which is scheduled later this summer in Los Angeles.
"The Nike Camp at Virginia Tech went well," he said. "The weather was bad, it was 60 degrees and raining but coach Bob Johnson had a lot of interest in me. I seemed to catch his eye."
Last week Russell attended Tennessee's senior camp and made another favorable impression while competing against several other Elite 11 invitees.
"I kind of befriended Chase Patton, spent the whole day with him," Russell said of the Missouri quarterback prospect who is commanding a lot of attention among Big Orange fans as the Vols potential QB of the future. "We'll keep in touch with each other."
Without a names on their jersies it was a challenge for observers to distinguish who was the most prominent prospect among the quarterbacks at UT. In fact, Russell was as conspicuous by his talent as anyone.
"I tested better than all the quarterbacks," he said. "I had the fastest shuttle, longest long jump and fastest 40. I've worked a lot on my mechanics."
Clearly, Russell will need to add bulk to his 6-3 frame, but there was no denying his athletic ability or passing skills. He also played basketball at Powell Valley last season and averaged a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds, earning both all-district and all-region honors. He also played baseball until his junior season when his slate became too busy to accommodate three sports. Last week he attended a two-day football camp at Auburn and once again impressed coaches.
"Auburn went really well," he said. "The coaches were nice. It was a two-day camp and the quarterback coach asked me to stay over after the first day and work on some things. We stayed for an extra 30 minutes or so."
Russell is also hearing from Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas and MTSU among others, but Tennessee has always been his favorite school and it remains the program he's most interested in playing for.
"I live about an hour above Knoxville about five minutes from the Kentucky-Tennessee border," he said. "I always loved Tennessee. My blood's been orange ever since I was born. You can get beat up around here if you're not for Tennessee."
Russell has a couple of older brothers that work out with him to help hone his footwork and passing. He is fully qualified with a 3.2 GPA and a 20 on his first attempt at the ACT. His poise under pressure at UT's camp belied his experience level and offered insight to his success.
"Pressure really doesn't bother me that much," he said. "You've just got to step up to the challenge and have fun, do the best you can. I'm pretty accurate, I have the smarts to make the right throws and good athleticism."
He also has the attention of people in the know and with another year to further refine his game, he has a football future bright with promise.