- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Illinois sophomore linebacker Russell Ellington can remember watching plenty of televised Ohio State games at the Horseshoe while growing up in suburban Chicago. It's not that he was a Buckeyes fan; it was just the game that always seemed to be on.
"I had no choice," said Ellington, who preferred to watch Big Ten football over other conferences.
Taking in all those games as a kid, Ellington did marvel at the size of the stadium and its atmosphere. He dreamed of someday playing in it himself.
On Saturday, Ellington will be given that opportunity. Not only will he step foot into the Horseshoe, but with the recent season-ending surgery of Martez Wilson, Ellington has been promoted to a starting linebacker role on Saturday.
For Illinois to upset Ohio State like it did in 2007, it'll be up to Ellington and the rest of the defense to have their best game.
"We talked to all the linebackers that they have to step up their game," Illini co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "Martez was carrying the load for us. He had been making the calls and checks. He had played the most in our defense. They all have to step up and hopefully they're all prepared."
Ellington says he is.
"Definitely, I have to step up with Martez leaving," Ellington said. "I have to make more plays. I can't be just a role player. I came to Illinois because it was an up-and-coming program. I wanted to play in big games like this. I want to go out and prove a lot ... that I'm a good player."
Ellington began proving that in Illinois' win over Illinois State last week. He had a career-high eight tackles, broke up two passes and had an interception that he returned for 68 yards.
The performance was a sign to Illinois' coaching staff that Ellington was headed in the right direction. He had been a quarterback and safety at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, but the Illini thought with his athleticism and body frame they could convert him into a linebacker. In his first season at the position, he had rocky times as he was undersized and didn't have a complete grasp of how to play linebacker.
That all changed this season. In the offseason, he added 13 pounds (he's now up to 228) and spent countless hours studying film.
"Last year was kind of hard," said Ellington, who is one of three Homewood-Flossmoor graduates on the Illini's defense. "I needed the offseason to bulk up. Obviously being a year older, I know the defense a lot better. The game has slowed down. The reads are easier. The reads are slower."
Disch is encouraged by Ellington's progress, but isn't satisfied.
"He's still young, and he's got a long way to go," Disch said. "To come from where he came from being a quarterback and safety to starting at linebacker, he's come a long way. This is the first step."
Another step will be playing well at Ohio State.
"He has to prove he can play in the Big Ten," Disch said. "You try to get them reps every day from the spring to throughout camp. Even now, you're just trying to get him a lot reps. To be in that atmosphere against that caliber of team, you don't know how he's going to react."
Ellington doesn't know for sure either. He is optimistic. He knows from watching those Ohio States games growing up that it takes a certain mentality for an opponent to play well in the Horseshoe.
"You have to be more focused," Ellington said. "You got to be more locked into the game plan. I think I'm ready to play. I think the whole defense is ready to play."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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