ND's Todd Lyght shines the way for Russell return, resurgence

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — His connection to KeiVarae Russell to this point consists of a couple of long phone calls and browsing game film that’s well over a year old.

But new Notre Dame defensive backs coach Todd Lyght has seen and heard enough from the junior cornerback-in-escrow that he’s convinced a resurgence on the back end of the Irish defense starts with Russell, a player still 2½ months and a nod from ND admissions away from being back on campus.

“Really great energy,” Lyght said Monday after practice, the Irish football team’s fourth session of 15 this spring. “I think the adversity he’s faced, he’s handled it the right way, and I think he’s really looking forward to getting back and being a part of this team and getting back and acclimated at the University of Notre Dame and being around his team.

“I know he misses that tremendously.”

The Irish certainly miss him as well. Russell’s involuntary absence from the team in 2014 was a big part of, but not all of, the story of Notre Dame in 2014 recording its worst pass-efficiency defense standing nationally (84th out of 125 FBS teams) since 2006 (90th), and 45 spots lower than its 2013 finish.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder was snagged off the practice field on Aug. 15 and thrust into limbo for the next couple of months as Notre Dame methodically unraveled an investigation into academic dishonesty that involved Russell and four other players.

At the time, the converted running back/slot receiver from Everett, Wash., and perhaps head coach Brian Kelly’s most successful position transplant in his 5½ years at Notre Dame, was playing the best football of any player on either side of the ball.

Ultimately, Russell was suspended from school for the latter half of fall semester and all of the spring term once the probe was over. The two-year starter may end up being the only one of the five to suit up for the Irish in 2015, though defensive end Ishaq Williams’ father, Shaun, said his son is also making a push to return in June.

Russell’s plan of action this spring has been clear — working with a personal trainer for football and taking transferable credits at the University of Washington to enhance his academics.

Lyght and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have a clear plan too for reintegrating Russell into the Irish defense once he returns. It involves moving him around the defensive formation and taking advantage of his versatility.

“Because he has the ability to play inside and outside, we can put him on the best wide receiver on the other team,” Lyght said. “When you have a player of that caliber, you don’t want to just keep him pinned on one side of the field, because now offensive coordinators can dictate how much he’ll get involved into the game plan.

“Whereas if we move him around, now we take that out of their hands. And then we can manipulate where he is on the field and put him in closer proximity to where the ball’s going to be. That way he can be more effective and be more of a playmaker for us on the defensive side of the ball.”

As for the cornerbacks actually on campus this spring, junior-to-be Cole Luke has been the standout per Lyght, not just because of his ability, but because of his mental and physical toughness in working through some issues with back spasms.

“We need more of that. As a position group, we need to be more physical in everything we do,” Lyght said. “In our approach to tackling, with our approach to re-routing wide receivers and our approach to the finish at the end of the route.

“When I first got here, with coach (former DBs coach Kerry) Cooks they were coached a little bit differently than the way I coach them, and it takes time. There’s an adjustment period from player to coach, from coach to player, to figure out what the coach wants and how to get that replicated on the field in practice.

“I always try to explain to the guys, the way they train is the way we’re going to play. So we have to train at a very high level so we can play at a high level.”

Lyght is seeing that from safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, particularly the latter, with both coming off enigmatic 2013 seasons.

It’s a good thing, since the safety position group is so diluted by players coming back from injury, limited by injury or, in the case of Cal transfer Avery Sebasatian and freshmen Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, not yet on campus.

“Obviously, last year, they were still young players, didn’t have a lot of starts under their belts,” Lyght said of Shumate and Redfield. “I think that learning a new system is always difficult for safeties, but I think they did progress nicely throughout the season and played really, really well, especially Redfield, in that bowl game.”

Redfield had a career-high 14 tackles in ND’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory Dec. 30 over LSU, including keeping LSU holder Brad Kragthorpe inches short of the end zone on a fake field goal attempt just before halftime to maintain a touchdown lead at the time.

The now 6-1, 198-pound junior-to-be was benched for two games late in the 2014 season, Northwestern and Louisville, and had a combined one tackle on special teams in those games. His return to the starting lineup, in the regular-season finale against USC, was coaxed by a season-ending injury freshman Drue Tranquill more than anything else.

“You like to see that as a young player, how they are going to respond to adversity,” Lyght said of Redfield. “Are they going to kind of fold up and wither? Are they going to stand up and be accountable for their actions and learn to excel at a high level? That’s what he did.

“He has tremendous intelligence, tremendous athletic ability. He does a real good job of taking coaching and applying what we work on in individual (periods) to the team period. Some players, they struggle with that.

“I think his learning curve is really big, and I think that he can accelerate his learning curve with me being here and me working with him. He’s a very eager learner, great leader on the field, tremendous teammate, and I think he wants to pull guys along in the right direction. And I think we need more guys that have his intensity.”

Lyght’s own intensity is hardly cloaked, but it’s more subtle than say, Kelly’s or VanGorder’s. But it took a while for perhaps ND’s best cornerback of the past 50 years and a starter on the 1988 national championship team to channel that intensity into coaching.

He jumped into the pizzeria business even before his successful NFL playing career ended after the 2002 season. It was profitable but not something that generated passion in him, so he and his partners sold their more than 20 outlets and he moved into the restaurant business in Newport Beach, Calif.

As his interest in that began to flat-line, Lyght moved into doing radio for FOX.

“I really enjoyed that,” he said, “but after my fourth year, I was looking at the clock right after I was getting into work, and I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do with my life.” And then I started coaching my son’s soccer team.”

And then the light came on. And opportunity knocked. And when it didn’t, Lyght would seek it out. Eventually it all led to him landing his first full-time college coaching job at Vanderbilt in January, just short of his 46th birthday.

A call from Kelly a few weeks later brought him full circle to Notre Dame.

“Football has always been my first love,” he said. “I’ve always been a student of the game, even when I was a player. Even before I was a player, I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and watching NFL films for three hours and then going out and playing football ’til the sun went down.

“So being back in the game is very natural for me. I had no problems starting from the bottom, because that’s just what it is. Even though I was successful as a player. I realized that coaching’s a little bit different.

“Just because you can play at a high level, doesn’t mean you can teach at a high level. I realized that I had to go back. I was going to coaching clinics. I was going around to practices, going to see people in the professional ranks, the collegiate ranks.

“Now I get to have my own room, and I’m really excited about it, about teaching these young guys everything I know about the game and the way you need to go about playing.”

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ND's first-year defensive backs coach, Todd Lyght, also happens to represent Notre Dame on the latest College Football Hall of Fame ballot. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN).