Notre Dame football: Russell at home in secondary

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Familiarity is a new feeling for KeiVarae Russell at Notre Dame.

For starters, the fast-talking sophomore knows what position he’s playing this year. As a freshman, he was greeted with a flip from running back and slot wide receiver to cornerback right before camp started in August. Now, after starting 13 games opposite of Bennett Jackson last season, Russell has a foundation to build upon.

“Last year I didn't know what I was doing,” Russell said. “Bennett was in his first year starting. Last year was a lot of firsts for us. This year we're going in to play.”

On Monday, head coach Brian Kelly gave Russell a chance to get more comfortable when he affirmed Russell as a starting cornerback ahead of senior Lo Wood, who has returned after missing last season with an Achilles injury. Kelly had seen enough in the opening days of camp to recognize Russell’s improvements.

“He knows the position very well,” Kelly said. “His technique has improved immensely. He's stronger physically. A lot more confidence. All those things that come with being a returning starter."

Russell hasn’t taken the appointment as a starter with complacency. He has a grander plan than the one that played out during his freshman season. Since the national championship loss against Alabama, Russell added 12 pounds to his frame to combat with stronger receivers.

Now at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Russell feels better prepared to take on targets like USC’s Marqise Lee and Alabama’s Amari Cooper.

“It wasn't that they ran better routes or anything, they were just explosive,” Russell said. “They were really explosive off the line of scrimmage when they run their routes. You had to be sound in everything you did. Whether it was a post or a quick comeback, everything was explosive.”

Breaking down film in the offseason allowed Russell to identify the mistakes he made at times as a freshman. The new responsibilities were being thrown at him faster than words leave his mouth. An understanding of both defensive and offensive schemes has sharpened his ability to put himself in the right position on the field.

“A year of experience really helped as far as building confidence and building that mindset of I can play against anybody,” Russell said. “Now it's taking that step to being great. It's not just being an elite player. I gotta try to take myself to being great."

A freshman season with 58 tackles, fifth-best on the team, and two interceptions has become the standard Russell hopes to surpass. Building on last year’s freshman all-America honors is the goal.

“Right now I feel like I could be the best player that I could be and one of the best corners in the country,” Russell said. “That's why I focus on my footwork and everything so I can own that title. Not just tell myself that but show the world I can be one of the elite corners.”

While looking upward Russell reminds himself to keep his feet on the ground. With Wood working to earn game reps as a third cornerback, Russell won’t be a de facto starting cornerback in 2013. Playing on an island, mistakes at cornerback are more visible than many others on the field.

“One play can ruin a lot. You can have a perfect day and then one bad play can send you right back down the depth chart,” Russell said.

He insists the thought of losing his starting spot doesn’t add any pressure to him. He holds himself as accountable for the plays in which he succeeds as the plays in which he falters.

The success of Russell and Jackson could give Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco more options schematically. The option of taking more chances to pressure the quarterback with blitzes that would leave a lesser secondary vulnerable could come into play. The cornerback position has flipped from questionable to reliable in a year’s time.

“You could make the case when you're more experienced back there that you could play more on-body coverages and obviously tie down more,” Kelly said. “Whether we do or not, we'll certainly have that in our repertoire if we needed it. When you're less experienced you're more hesitant to do it. I think now that opens the opportunity for us do that if necessary.”

Russell knows what the defensive line can do to cause havoc with opposing offenses, knows he wants the secondary to gain a similar reputation. If that happens, Notre Dame’s odds of playing in the last game of the college football season increase.

"Our D-line is one of the best, if not the best, in the country. Those guys are insane freaks in the front,” Russell said. “They're always going to be good, but at the end of the day you need a great secondary to really have a championship team. We believe that we're a championship defensive back corps now. Last year we were going in to play and now we're going in to dominate. That's the difference.”

Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell during the Blue-Gold Spring Football game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, April 20, 2013, in South Bend. South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN