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A popular slogan used by a major insurance company is, "The Good Hands People."
At the University of Illinois, Tim Russell is definitely one of the "good hands people" these days for the Fighting Illini football team.
Russell, a 2009 graduate of St. Charles East High School, has served as the primary holder on field goal tries and extra-point attempts for the past 3 seasons at Illinois.
Last weekend, Russell successfully placed the ball down for 3 PATs as well as a 31-yard field goal by place-kicker Taylor Zalewski during Illinois' 56-32 Big Ten Conference loss to Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
And if Illinois coach Tim Beckman is ever in need of an emergency quarterback, Russell could be the man.
The fifth-year senior completed his third 2-point conversion pass in as many tries this season — rolling to his left before hitting junior tight end Jon Davis following quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter against the 25th-ranked Badgers.
Earlier this season, Russell connected with Naperville North product Matt LaCosse on a 2-point pass during Illinois' 42-34 season-opening home victory over Southern Illinois on Aug. 31.
He also fired a 2-point conversion pass to Davis during Illinois' 50-14 triumph over Miami of Ohio on Sept. 28 in Champaign.
Borrowing the phrase from another major insurance company, Russell enjoyed a "discount double-check" of sorts during last year's game against nationally-ranked Ohio State in Columbus.
First, he tossed a 2-point conversion pass to LaCosse late in the third quarter and added a 2-point run of his own in the fourth quarter during Illinois' 52-22 loss to the Buckeyes.
"One of the highlights of my college career was scoring points for the first time," said Russell. "We weren't expecting to run it (against Ohio State)."
Watching Fighting Illini football games, Russell doesn't necessarily stand out — since he's the player kneeling down anxiously awaiting the snap from center on PAT and field goal attempts.
But the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder certainly stands out in a crowd when he's on his feet.
"One of our coaches recently joked that I'm probably the biggest holder in the nation," said Russell, who is on scholarship for the first time this season.
At St. Charles East, Russell earned 6 letters while playing football, basketball and baseball.
During his junior season in 2007, the Saints captured the Upstate Eight Conference football championship and earned a 31-6 first-round playoff victory over Granite City.
As a senior, Russell helped the Saints to a second-place conference finish and a 17-13 first-round playoff win over Lake Zurich in head coach Ted Monken's final season as St. Charles East.
The Saints compiled a record 16-6 during Russell's final 2 seasons.
"It was a lot of fun — the overtime games and just being with those guys," recalled Russell. "We could play with anybody. I miss playing high school football."
Russell knew what college he wanted to attend after graduating from high school.
"I've always wanted to come to Illinois," said Russell. "My dad and uncles went to Illinois. Going to a smaller school and playing football never crossed my mind."
During that first summer, Russell spoke with a walk-on recruiter and decided to give football a try at Illinois.
"I thought it was a good fit," said Russell.
After redshirting his freshman year in 2009, Russell was a member of the Illinois football team in 2010 but his on-field debut occurred in the Fighting Illini's 2011 season opener against Arkansas State. He served as the holder for field goals and extra points in all 13 games, including Illinois' 20-14 victory over UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl held in San Francisco.
During his time at Illinois, Russell has served as the holder for 3 different place-kickers — Derek Dimke (2010-2011), Nick Immekus (2012) and Zalewski (2012-2013) — and played for 2 head coaches — Ron Zook and Beckman.
"After the starting holder graduated in 2010, Derek Dimke basically picked me to be the holder," said Russell. "He was the one that got me involved in holding along with Coach Zook."
Russell admits that each kicker has his own intricacies concerning the angle of the ball, and that practice makes perfect.
"It's all about muscle memory and tons of reps," said the 22-year-old. "When I first started holding, I made some errors but it has become second nature. It's just my job."
When Beckman took over as Illinois head coach last season, Russell had to make another adjustment.
"I had to prove that I could be the holder all over again," he said.
Russell, who gets in some reps at tight end, also helps with offensive play signals during practices.
"I wish I could play some at tight end but I'm just not big enough to play in the Big Ten," said Russell, whose parents Timothy and Kathleen attend nearly every Illinois game.
Russell, who rates Wisconsin and Nebraska as his 2 favorite schools for road games, will graduate as an agricultural engineering (technical systems management) major in December.
He'd like nothing better than to spend his last month in Champaign preparing for a bowl game.
"I think we can do it," said Russell.
You can reach Craig Brueske at email@example.com.
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