Michigan's top-ranked Kellen Russell making huge impact in return to mat | TheMat.com - USA Wrestling (LINK)

Michigan?s Kellen Russell didn?t make the trip to Omaha for the 2010 NCAA Wrestling Championships.

It was probably a good thing.

It was painful enough having to sit at home and watch the tournament on television.

?It was rough,? Russell said. ?I definitely wish I would?ve been out there wrestling. I think I would?ve done really well.?

Russell, a two-time Big Ten champion who placed seventh in the 2009 NCAA tournament, looks primed to contend for a national title after returning to the mat this season.

The junior from High Bridge, N.J., is off to an unbeaten start and is ranked No. 1 nationally at 141 pounds for the Wolverines.

?Kellen is wrestling with a lot of confidence right now,? Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. ?He?s come back very strong. He has all the tools. He has the ability to put a lot of points on the board. He has an uncanny sense of where he is on the mat and a great ability to come out on top in scramble situations.?

Russell redshirted during the 2009-10 season, but this wasn?t your typical redshirt season.

Russell developed a staph infection in his knee after the 2009 NCAAs and underwent surgery. He also underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb.

He was sidelined from June through September 2009. Shortly after returning to the mat, Russell had a second knee surgery this past January after experiencing swelling in his knee. He was sidelined until this past May.

?It was tough, going through all of that,? he said. ?I wanted to train with (U.S. National Team member) Josh Churella, and come out to the Olympic Training Center. But I had to sit out and really be sure my body was all healed up.?

Russell, a Junior Nationals and Cadet Nationals freestyle champion, proved he is back by winning the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in early December.

?I?m back to 100 percent now,? Russell said. ?It was real important to wrestle the caliber of guys that were in Vegas and have success. It was real good for my confidence. It was the first time I had been on the mat against top guys in a while.?

Russell pinned second-ranked Jimmy Kennedy of Illinois just 76 seconds into their semifinal match in Vegas.

?I scored a quick takedown and I was working on top to turn him,? Russell said. ?I was able to get a cement job on him. Once I locked that up tight, he wasn?t going to be able to get out. I?ve worked hard on trying to score more points from the top position.?

Russell carries a 3.0 grade-point average as a physical education major. He hopes to become a coach.

?I worked with a lot of the guys when I couldn?t wrestle,? he said. ?It was a lot of fun. I became a student of the sport and tried to help the guys on our team.?

McFarland said the redshirt year has made a big difference for Russell.

?Kellen has a whole different perspective now,? McFarland said. ?You can see how much he?s matured and you can see how well he handles everything now. He?s more experienced and he is more confident. I don?t think the pressure is going to get to him. He?s very hungry and driven to succeed.?

Russell made an immediate splash collegiately after a standout career at high school powerhouse Blair Academy.

Russell jumped into Michigan?s lineup as a true freshman and won the Big Ten title in 2008. He was the No. 3 seed at the 2008 NCAAs in St. Louis. He fell 5-3 to eventual champion J Jaggers of Ohio State in the quarterfinals. He then lost his next match and fell one win short of placing.

He came back strong as a sophomore, repeating as Big Ten champion. Seeded No. 1 at the NCAAs, Russell was upset in the second round by Ryan Prater of Illinois. Russell led 6-2 and was shooting in on a leg attack when he was caught and pinned.

?There was a lot of pressure on him at the NCAAs as a freshman, and I think it affected him,? McFarland said. ?He came back as a sophomore as the No. 1 seed at NCAAs and he was wrestling well. He was staying aggressive and doing what he needed to do, and then he got caught by the Illinois kid. He?s going to use that to motivate him. He?s really hungry to do well this season.?

Russell came back to win his next three matches before eventually placing seventh to become an All-American for the first time.

?Everybody at nationals can beat everybody,? he said. ?You can?t take anybody too lightly. I learned that I need to score more points early in matches. I need two or three takedowns in the first period. It was disappointing, ending the season on a bad note. I know I need to work on scoring more and keeping my pace high.?

McFarland said Russell has set the example for his team.

?Kellen?s a great kid who works hard,? McFarland said. ?He did what he could when he was out last year. He hit the weights hard and he?s a lot stronger now. He?s put so much effort into the sport. You want to see a guy like that reach his goals.?

The 2011 NCAAs are scheduled for March 17-19 in Philadelphia.

?I look forward to wrestling better than I have in the past at nationals,? Russell said. ?I?m excited about wrestling in Philadelphia. It?s about an hour and a half drive from my house. I know I will have a lot of friends and family there. I?m really looking forward to it.?