Notre Dame football's elder statesman, Russell ready for new role

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The math still befuddles KeiVarae Russell.

Just a second semester sophomore, he returns to Notre Dame’s football team with more career starts than any of his teammates — on either side of the ball.

“They keep saying that,” Russell said. “Every time they say that, I try to look for somebody else on the team. I know I have the most, but I still look for somebody. Everett (Golson)? No. (Christian) Lombard? No. Somebody else has more than me. Nope.

“It's funny being 20 years old and having the most starts. It's a blessing too. I cherish the fact that I'm in the position going into my third year and possibly being a three-year starter already.”

Each of the 26 games that have been played since Russell enrolled at Notre Dame has featured him in the starting lineup. Fifth-year offensive lineman Christian Lombard is next in line with 20 starts. Not bad for a former running back that once told former teammate Bennett Jackson that he couldn’t handle playing defense just a few days into his first fall camp.

He may no longer be a cornerback novice, but this fall Russell anticipates being used very differently under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The change will come in playing more man-to-man coverage than in the previous two seasons for Bob Diaco.

“I'm excited for it,” Russell said. “That's how you create turnovers and break up a lot of passes.”

An increase in man coverage could bring more pressure on the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Russell, but he’s welcoming it.

“I'm a man-to-man guy,” Russell said. “I think I'm a guy that if I keep progressing I'm going to be a great man-to-man player. I'm excited for this opportunity to play man-to-man the majority of the game and be able to make plays on the ball.”

The switch is favorable to Russell for a number of reasons. His goal to grow into a lockdown corner becomes a distinct possibility with a stronger emphasis on solo coverage skills.

“My goal is to win the Thorpe this year,” Russell said in reference to the Jim Thorpe Award given to the top defensive back in college football. “I don't want to win it next year. I want to win it next year, but I'm not trying to say I'm going to wait until my senior year. I want to win it this year. That's a big goal for me, to win the Thorpe this year. I think I really I can. The biggest thing for me is perfecting my craft and becoming a true lockdown corner. I know I can.”

As his corner development continues, Russell hopes the progress produces more turnovers and big plays for him and the Irish defense. In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, he snagged only three interceptions.

“The first step is to be a lockdown corner,” Russell said. “I can't say forcing turnovers if I'm not even covering my guy each and every play. Once I get to that point to where I know no matter who I go against, I can lock you down. I believe I can. I really believe that. That's the next step after that: forcing turnovers even in the run game and the pass game.”

With the defensive switch, Russell should start showing up more on the stat sheet. He tallied 109 tackles in his first two seasons, but recorded only 10 breakups and 13 pass deflections. Now he’ll be sticking to receivers all game long.

“In this defense, this guy wants you to drive on every route. Every single route,” Russell said. “If you backpedal even a split faster than how he likes, he's going to yell at you about it. He's going to get on you and let you know you need to slow it down. We're competing on every single route: comebacks, curls, gos, everything. It's going to be a big opportunity for me to be around a lot of balls this year."

If his play isn’t a bother to opposing receivers, Russell will make sure his trash talk can be heard. Wideouts won’t be able to escape his jabbering by crossing into different zones.

"It’s way easier because he has no excuse now,” Russell said. “It's me and you the entire day."

Russell predicted that the Irish will play man-to-man defense anywhere between 70 and 80 percent of the time this fall. He praised the way VanGorder has taught the keys to his defense as they install the system this spring.

“I think he's helping us grasp everything better than we have before,” Russell said. “Not down on Coach Diaco. He's basically family to me. This is an NFL defense. Coach Diaco's wasn't. I'm trying to understand where to be on the field, why I'm there, where my help is on the field.”

And with mention of the NFL, Russell admitted that he spent time watching the NFL Combine and talking with Jackson about the process. He wants to be prepared for the next level — whether he decides to leave early at his first chance following his junior season or finishes his four years at Notre Dame first.

“I’m not just thinking about the league all the time, but of course it went to my mind occasionally,” Russell said. “I have an opportunity. It would be crazy to get there when I get there. I don't like saying if I get there. I like saying when. If I'm going to say if, you have doubt. You might occasionally hear me say when I get to the league. It's not arrogance. I don't like saying if.”

Russell wants to become a man in demand. He already has the theater department asking for more. After performing in last April’s production of “Intimate Apparel,” Russell heard from his acting friends again this year. Two weeks after auditions he was still be asked to take part.

He decided to focus on football, where he has bigger and better plans. His confidence, reflected in mentions of the Jim Thorpe Award, the NFL Draft, and getting back to the national championship game, remains at an all-time high. It’s the necessary mentality of an elite cornerback.

“To say that no one's going to catch a ball all year long, that's unreal. That's not a reality. But that's my goal of course,” Russell said. “You have to realize that somebody's going to catch a ball, but what are you going to do the next play?”

Act Three awaits.

Tyler James: 574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell zeroes in on Temple's Ryan Alderman during last year's season opener. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)