Notebook: Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell aims to be nation's best

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Don't expect to see the same old KeiVarae Russell in 2015.

He's shooting to be better.

And the senior cornerback, who missed the 2014 season due to an academic suspension, believes coordinator Brian VanGorder's aggressive defensive scheme will allow him to get there.

“I feel like I didn’t finish with college football. I haven’t shown enough," Russell said last weekend. "I really feel that I can be the best corner in the country. Y’all heard that my sophomore year. I told you that I could be the best corner in the country.

"And I felt that with Brian VanGorder’s defense — I loved (former defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco’s defense — but with VanGorder’s defense installed, it could really help me out and have the ability to show who I am.”

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Russell believes that he has both the speed to run with premier wide receivers and the strength to press and knock them off their routes.

VanGorder's scheme, the senior cornerback says, will put that athleticism on display.

“Y’all have seen the videos when I train. You have seen how athletic I am," Russell said. "That’s what I do — jump, run. I’m an athlete. I believe I’m one of the best athletes in the country. This defense allows me to do that, being able to press man and run with guys all day. I’m able to use my abilities.”

The end goal, Russell said, is to be the best cornerback in the country on the best team in the country.

“When I got suspended, I knew that I didn’t really have a chance to show what I could do in the bend-don’t-break defense my freshman and sophomore year," Russell said. "So I had to come back and show these guys what I could do. And I want to be a champion. I want to win a ring, and I feel like this team is special.

"I looked at the roster, seeing all the guys that are coming back and all the guys that I have built relationships with. Leaving with this, I feel like it would be a coward move if I just left. I felt that I had to finish as a leader and a player. I had to come back. It was an easy decision.”

Zaire's leadership

Malik Zaire has always been outspoken.

But talking doesn't always mean leading.

In his first summer session with the media last week, Notre Dame junior wide receiver Corey Robinson distinguished between the two and elaborated on how Zaire — soon-to-be the first left-handed starting quarterback in Irish history — has seized command of the offense heading into the 2015 season.

“This summer, he has stepped up into the leader that I knew he could be," said Robinson, who was an early enrollee alongside Zaire in the spring semester of 2013. "Malik has always been outspoken. He has always been energetic. He kind of brings everyone to him. He’s charismatic.

"But in the last two months, he has really shown that he can be the quarterback. The guy. And not just a fun, charismatic leader, but the leader that Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley look up to and says, ‘What do we need to do right now? How are we going to score?’ Malik has shown that he can be that guy to go to.”

Following the first start of his career, in the 2014 Music City Bowl victory over LSU in which he threw for 96 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 more yards and another score, Zaire will have to be the guy every weekend in the fall.

Culture...Culture...Culture

Have you heard that word enough yet?

Since training camp kicked off with head coach Brian Kelly's opening press conference on Thursday, and even before, that has been the theme — the mission statement — of "Team 127."

Culture beats scheme.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

It may be a tired message, but it's also a historically viable one. In explaining what it means to the Irish, Robinson — who caught 40 passes for 539 yards and five touchdowns last season — spoke from experience.

“Last year, we collapsed at the end of the season," acknowledged Robinson, whose father, David Robinson, won two NBA championships and entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.

"We have all the talent in the world. That’s not an issue, playing at Notre Dame. One of the things that makes champions is that culture. I love the Spurs, right, but they have a winning culture there. They have a professionalism. For us to become the champions that we think we can be, we have to establish that winning culture as well.”

Brown delivers (leadership)

DaVaris Daniels helped develop Chris Brown into a leader.

Or, more accurately, the lack of DaVaris Daniels.

When Daniels was suspended for academics reasons prior to the 2014 season, that absence forced Brown — now a 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior wide receiver — to attempt to fill his shoes. In his third season with the team, the speedy wideout notched career-highs in catches (39) and receiving yards (548).

But he also adopted more of a vocal persona, which he can now pass down the line.

“With a former player being unfortunately kicked out and having to step up in that leadership role last year, that was a big transition for me," Brown said last weekend. "But I felt good doing it and I was able to lead a young group. And now, we’re a vet group.

"Now I’m passing on those things to Will (Fuller) and Corey (Robinson), and they’re starting to be more vocal. If we continue to develop that, we’ll be good.”

Studying abroad

Corey Robinson had a busy summer.

Besides training with his teammates for his junior season at Notre Dame, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver also studied abroad in both South Africa and Japan.

Last week, he spoke about how those experiences altered his perspective.

“I think everybody should have that opportunity to study abroad, because you’re exposed to so many different types of people, so many different types of cultures, and you learn so much about yourself," Robinson said. "It’s really cool when you realize, ‘The way I’ve been living isn’t the only way to live. My opinions aren’t right all the time.’

"And when you broaden your horizons like that, you’re more open to different philosophies. You’re more open to different perspectives on things.

"It really changes the way you look at things, especially the things we take for granted. I could see how blessed I really am. It made me think, even as a collegiate student-athlete, that my platform is immense. I can really help individuals and inspire young kids to go pursue their dreams, to go get a college education. It puts everything into perspective for you.

"It’s not, ‘Oh, I want to go score touchdowns.’ I’m scoring touchdowns because it’s fun, but also because I can change these kids’ lives who look up to me.”

Another huge thanks to Nishimura & Asahi for meeting with us yesterday! Exceptional law firm with incredible people pic.twitter.com/sxcdVFdnRt

— Corey Robinson (@CoreyRobinson13) August 1, 2015//

Big thanks to @googlejapan for letting us visit the office in Tokyo. We appreciate your hospitality #ndaroundtheworldpic.twitter.com/uU9JWXTXA1

— Corey Robinson (@CoreyRobinson13) August 1, 2015//

Had an unbelievable time in South Africa learning about its rich culture/history. Thanks for your hospitality! pic.twitter.com/JaEoLBrO9E

— Corey Robinson (@CoreyRobinson13) June 7, 2015//

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell, right, aims to be the best cornerback in the country in 2015. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)