Notre Dame football: Russell taps Te’o to help on the comeback trail

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - He purports to study the list of former Notre Dame All-America cornerbacks every day, even occasionally poring over film of the most recent of those, converted soccer player Shane Walton (2002).

But somehow the growing pains of KeiVarae Russell’s sophomore season were starting to overtake the actual growth. It wasn’t so much a crisis of confidence for the second-year starting cornerback as it was figuring out how to turn the page on adversity.

So he reached into the past and called former Irish All-America middle linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o.

“He’s always been a big brother figure to me when he was here,” Russell said of the San Diego Chargers rookie. “We actually had a man-to-man talk. And I asked him, ‘How did you get where you are?’ ”

Russell said Te’o shared his early struggles during his own ascent, struggles that Russell never knew about while playing high school ball in Everett, Wash.

“He told me when he was a sophomore, everybody was loving him,” Russell said. “Then he’d have a terrible game and everybody was like. ‘What the hell?’ And he was like, ‘You’ve just got to ignore that if you want to be great.’

“That’s what he told me, ‘If you want to be great, you’ve got to keep going. The great ones don’t dwell on a bad game or a bad play. The great ones know that’s going to happen. But the great ones are always defined by how they come back.’ ”

Actually, the entire secondary is sort of in comeback mode as the 22nd-ranked Irish (2-1) square off against Michigan State (3-0) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EST, NBC-TV).

After three uneven games that one would have expected to see last season when three first-year starters and converted offensive players helped comprise the nation’s No. 16 pass-efficiency defense, the Irish now sit at 63rd in that category. ND’s linebackers have contributed to the fall as well.

Not included in that number are the six pass-interference penalties the Irish have been flagged for in the first three games of the season. That matches the total ND amassed all of last season.

If there’s a positive spin in the matchups that are ahead, it’s that Arizona State, (Oct. 5 in Arlington, Texas) is the only team of the nine remaining on the schedule that has a passing offense ranked above No. 69. The Sun Devils are eighth.

This Saturday’s opponent, Michigan State, hasn’t racked up much passing yardage and hasn’t thrown it well when they’ve tried. The Spartans are 105th in pass offense and 97th in passing efficiency.

What the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Russell has learned, though, is that you have to bring it every game and every play, regardless of a team’s passing prowess or lack thereof.

“I’ve changed my approach to practice,” Russell offered. “I used to be goofy. clowning, but now I’ve changed my approach as far as being more professional, being more about my business, ’cause this game is no joke. And playing secondary is hard.”

Complicating it for Russell was that he had just 27 days last August to get ready to be a starting college cornerback as a true freshman. The Mariner High standout had most recently played cornerback his sophomore high school season, and even then only part-time and with admittedly low effort, hoping that his coaches would drop the double duty.

Notre Dame had recruited him as a running back, then had him work at slot receiver last summer before flipping Russell to corner as training camp was getting underway and the corner position was being depleted. By season’s end, Russell had made 58 tackles, including two for loss, and racked up two interceptions.

He did have four of ND’s six pass-interference penalties in 2012, three while trying to defend USC All-America wide receiver Marqise Lee and two of those coming on the same drive. But around those miscues he was solid enough to make the Football Writers Association of America’s Freshman All-America team.

The Irish front seven was dominant enough without having to blitz much in 2012 that ND could play mostly zone coverage that protected the corners from being exposed. This year, by Russell’s estimates, the Irish are in man coverage about 50 percent of the time.

“We’re trying to open up the playbook a lot,” he said “That’s how we’re going to execute more games on defense. We can’t keep our playbook closed.”

Russell’s mom, Yolanda Phillips, is helping him keep his head straight through the changes, especially after Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon torched the Irish secondary for eight catches, 184 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

“I was a poor sport when I was a kid,” Russell said. “My mom really helped me out. When I would mess up or lose a game, I would just go cry, go in my room. But she told me, ‘Life goes on.’ That’s how I feel like. Yeah, you’re going to make a mistake, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to be great.

“The great ones can’t sit on, ‘Oh I made a mistake.’ So if you’re going to let something define you from one, two or three games, then you don’t want to be great. I’m not going to let that define me or who our team is. You’ve got to keep moving on and get better.

“She (Russell’s mom) texted me after the Michigan game. She was like, ‘I know you’re beating yourself up. Keep your head up. It’s a long season.’ It was good to hear from her. She’s really grounded me.”

She also taught him never to be afraid of a challenge. During Russell’s junior year at Mariner High, he went out for the swimming team, having never even taken so much as a swimming lesson. His first practice consisted of a glorified dog paddle. By the end of the year, he was actually winning some races.

And now he’s ready to apply the lessons of his past and the words of Te’o to push him forward.

“It’s going to be tough, but I want to be one of them someday,” he said as he rattled off the names of ND’s All-America corners. “I’ve learned that the sky’s the limit for me. I have all the ability and all of the potential in the world to be great. But I’m still young and I’m not even close to being great.

“Potential only goes so far. Athletically, I can play with anybody. Speed-wise, I can play with anybody, but at the end of the day, it’s about who’s going to be the smartest on each and every play. It’s about who’s going to be most technically sound every single play.

“Michigan’s receivers, I think I’m more athletic than all of them. It just got to the point where I (thought I was) going to out-athletic these guys. Then I’d get beat. You’ve got to be smart on every play, technique-sound on every play, do what the coaches teach you.

“This humbles me ... (but) I think it’s exciting. It’s a process, but I love the process. When I get to the level where I want to be, I want to be able to say I worked for it.”

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) tackles Purdue wide receiver B.J. Knauf (83) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in West Lafayette, Ind. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER