Missed time motivates Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

KeiVarae Russell believes in addition by subtraction … then addition.

During his year spent away from the team for an academic suspension, one that spanned the entire 2014 season, he had to. The belief that a brighter future still existed at Notre Dame was the only thing that kept the 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback’s head above ground when guilt and uncertainty threatened to bury him.

He told himself that by going home, by becoming mentally stronger, by learning to define football as a privilege instead of a guarantee, he could transform himself into a better player.

He could help transform the Irish into a better team.

“A lot of these guys, they knew what I was doing,” Russell said of his teammates, who milled around him at Culver Academies after the first practice of training camp on Friday. “They knew that I was going to come back better. They know who I am. I work. That’s what I do.

“‘It’s hard, but this is going to make our team better.’ That’s what I convinced myself.”

That certainty carried Russell back to Notre Dame, and it also pushed him to train relentlessly in his hometown of Everett, Wash., in advance of his run at redemption. That journey cleared another hurdle on Friday, when the senior cornerback donned the gold helmet for the first time in nearly a year.

“It’s hard to put myself in his shoes, but he just loves football,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “So I’m sure it’s a big day for him just to get out here and play. You can see a smile on his face. You feel for him and you’re so happy that he’s able to get past all the things that have been in front of him.

“It’s been long. He’s had to work hard to get back here. All the credit goes to him in the sense that he has really had to sacrifice a lot to get back to Notre Dame. That’s why it’s great to see him out there.”

The Irish wide receivers may not have felt the same. Physically, Russell teased his ability to impact a defense on Friday in 1-on-1 drills, draping himself over standout Will Fuller to knock away a pass and later jumping one of Chris Brown’s routes for a deflection that could just have easily been an interception and a touchdown.

Despite the year spent dangling in purgatory, Russell’s athleticism — the trait that generated 26 starts, 129 tackles and three interceptions in his first two seasons at Notre Dame — was on display in all its glory.

On a football field, whether in Culver, Ind., or South Bend, his presence creates an aftershock.

“I love Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt. We’re all leaders,” Russell said. “But me personally, coming back and going into this year, I feel like I want the most pressure. I tell the linebackers that all the time. We’re doing zones? Don’t worry about coming and helping me. I got it. I want this pressure. I feel like I’m at that level.

“When you’ve got someone like that, it makes defense a lot easier. The linebackers can fly around and make plays. They don’t have to worry about expanding to the flat. I’ve got it over here. I think that’s what I bring, the mentality to take the No. 1 (receiver) out of the game and allow this defense to bring out more packages.”

On the heels of the most difficult year of his life, Russell doesn’t hesitate to list all the ways in which he’s changed. He’s stronger, faster, lighter. He’s mentally more equipped to handle adversity.

Hopefully, he’s more of a leader, too. But that can’t be proven, Russell says, until his team needs someone to lead.

“During the season, that’s when leaders tend to fall off at times, because you’re tired. You’re beat down,” Russell said. “It’s the same routine every day. It’s redundant. That’s what I’m trying to see in myself. I missed a year. Can I continue to use that as fuel? Or will I go back to how some college athletes are, where they take it for granted? I don’t want to get back to that point.”

“I already know I’m going to be a better player. I’m going to be a way better player. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about myself as a leader. Am I going to be able to get guys rallied up in game six (as well) as I am in game one? Am I going to be able to do that and constantly preach to these guys what it’s like to not have it?

“No one on this team knows what it’s like to miss a year. Yeah, you might tear an ACL or get injured. That’s different than it being stripped away from you. It’s totally different. I couldn’t go there and watch the games. I couldn’t be a part of it. Some guys really don’t understand what it’s like. I do. I’m excited to see how I use that as fuel to lead these guys.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6428 | Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell does a push up during practice at training camp Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Culver, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)