Coach Phillip Fulmer closed the deal for the Vols during an in-home visit with Russell and his family, completing a courtship that included regular contact by UT assistant Jimmy Ray Stephens and scouting trips by secondary coach Larry Slade.
The Vols fourth commitment for the Class of 2003 chose Tennessee over offers from such SEC schools as Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi. He also had an offer from Notre Dame among other top schools outside the region.
At various times, Russell has been rumored to be headed to Mississippi and Auburn, but Tennessee turned the tide with a late blitz that kept the 6-3, 187-pound DB in the Volunteer State.
In what seems like a bargain, the Vols in turn get a young man who not only grew up wanting to wear the Big Orange, but a player with the talent to played either corner or safety at the next level. The rangy Russell has 4.41 speed and a 36-inch vertical leap to go with ball-hawking instincts and a laudable work ethic.
He's rated No. 50 by The Insiders among safety prospects nationwide, but that ranking is impacted by the fact Russell didn't attend any of the Nike Camps and he hasn't been evaluated as a corner. Russell missed the exposure of the Nike Camps because he purposely chose to put off surgery on his shoulder until spring in order to complete basketball season in which he led the Burros in scoring with 15.5 ppg. That type of stoic sacrifice is not unusual where Russell is concerned, according to Hillsboro Head Coach Ronald Aydelott.
"He's top notch," said Aydelott, a 20-year coaching veteran who has overseen the Burros reversal of fortunes since 1994. "He's a topnotch kid. He's got a great family. He's a class kid and he does everything you ask him to do. He's a good student, a good basketball player and he works hard in the weight room."
A starter at corner for Hillsboro since his freshman year, Russell has helped lead the Burros to a 28-2 record the last two seasons and consecutive appearances in the Class-4A State title game.
Russell recorded 32 tackles as a junior along with four interceptions, one which he returned for a touchdown. He also broke up 25 passes and recovered a fumble despite missing four games with a separated shoulder.
"He had a great year for us last year," said Aydelott. "He did miss four games with a separated shoulder. He was injured in the second round of the playoffs in the first series and came back in the third round with his shoulder basically tied down to his side."
Originally, Russell sustained the shoulder injury in the first series of the season opener and didn't return until game three of the 2001 slate. He played both ways for the rest of the season despite limitations caused by the injury.
Russell also played split end and caught seven passes for two touchdowns for a Hillsboro team that only threw the ball 90 times the entire season.
"He had a great year as a receiver," said Aydelott. "He could have posted some big numbers if we had thrown the ball more than six times a game."
As a senior, Russell recorded 44 tackles, broke up 27 passes and grabbed three interceptions.
"Most people want him as a cover corner," said Aydelott. "He just jumps so well and he's so tall. He just has all the things that you want.
"We've had kids who run as fast. We've had kids as strong. We've probably had kids that catch as well at split end, but size wise and being the kind of person he is, doing the things you ask him to do, he's the best. I've never had a kid start as a freshman, not at that position. He's phenomenal. He's the best secondary kid we've had all the way through."
Basketball and the shoulder injury have slowed Russell's progress in the weight room, but he still posts some respectable numbers: 250 in the bench, a 415 parallel, 245 clean and 455 dead lift.
He was clocked running a 4.41 at Florida's football camp last summer and also attended Tennessee's camp. It's that speed and his reputation as a pass defender that has discourage the competition from testing Russell more at the corner.
"I really don't see too much action at cornerback," he said. "I had a real strong sophomore year so teams are afraid to throw to my side."
Although his weight lifting was curtailed, Russell spent a lot of time working on his speed last summer.
"I feel my speed has gotten better," he said. "I was fast last year, but I feel like I'm faster this year because I worked a lot over the summer on my speed. I'm playing the ball more this year than playing the man. Most of the time I'm matched up on the other team's best receiver. Usually, I stick to him like glue."
Russell's improvement was aided by Brentwood defensive end/offensive tackle Steven Jones, who is also being recruited by Tennessee.
"I did a lot of speed work over the summer with a friend of mine named Steven Jones," he said. "I worked out with him and his dad and his dad had me doing a lot of drills and stuff."
Now that Russell has agreed to be a Vol, he might work on his friend to join him.