Notebook: Russell gets NCAA blessing as game gets up to speed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly’s public revelation that KeiVarae Russell’s re-entry onto the Notre Dame football roster wasn’t nearly as smooth as the repatriated cornerback had expected and anticipated hardly stung.

Finality in his 368-day ordeal with first an in-house academic dishonesty investigation, then a university-imposed suspension, followed by NCAA red tape, became a reality on Monday, and the feel-good story line was still enveloping Russell the next day.

“He was fully cleared by the NCAA,” Kelly, the sixth-year Irish head coach said Tuesday during his extended Media Day press conference.

The 5-foot-11, 196-pounder from Everett, Wash., and a Phil Steele preseason All-American before his school-year-long suspension made that predictive honor moot, finally was looking the part in practice.

“KeiVarae was rusty coming in,” Kelly said. “He really needed to be here, and it’s great that he’s gotten to work. (Defensive backs coach) Todd Lyght’s done a terrific job with all of those guys. I love the way our one-on-ones have gone. It’s been the best since I’ve been coaching, no matter where I’ve been.

“So KeiVarae has gotten so much better. There was a little too much clutching and grabbing, and I think a lot of that was when you’re out of pads for a year, you can’t duplicate by jumping on boxes. It looks good on video, but you’ve got to play the game.”

Russell’s box jump was an Instagram sensation after he posted it nearing his readmission to Notre Dame in June.

Formerly suspended defensive end Ishaq Williams was also readmitted in June, but his timeline with the NCAA is moving much more slowly. Russell took the equivalent of 18 semester hours of credit at Everett Community College from January through May.

That ultimately satisfied the NCAA’s 18-hour rule for eligibility in the following season. Williams did not take classes while suspended and had to apply for a waiver for the 18-hour rule. His status remains in limbo, and he will not practice with the team, Kelly said, until it has been resolved.

“He had to write an appeal,” Kelly said. “He had to personally put it together. That’s been completed. That has been sent off to the NCAA, so now that goes through the process of them looking at his appeal.”

Russell said he continues to communicate with Williams and support him through the process with the hope he’ll be able to celebrate with him at some point. For now, he’s basking in the final formality in his own case.

“It feels amazing to know it’s fully behind me,” he said. “We were all confident I was going to get cleared, but it’s good to hear it’s finally behind me and I can just look at the sun in the front and leave the dark clouds behind.”

Who’s calling the plays?

Kelly hinted strongly in the spring that he’d likely remain the team’s primary play-caller in the 2015 season, with the thought of passing the baton at some undetermined point beyond that.

Yet a little more than two weeks before the Sept. 5 season opener with Texas, Kelly is mulling moving up that timetable.

Assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock is the lead dog Sunday through Friday when it comes to offense — practice organization, installation, prep work — per Kelly. First-year offensive coordinator and QBs coach Mike Sanford, also has a strong voice.

“Now when we get into game day, that’s a whole different animal,” Kelly said. “That’s where we’ll kind of see where we go from there. I think I’ve got two guys that I’m going to lean on heavily, in Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock, on game day. I haven’t really made a decision as to how we’re going to call the games at this point.”

Kelly said he expects to name either himself, Sanford or Denbrock as the offensive play-caller in the next week or so.

Thumbs up for Schmidt

Reigning team MVP Joe Schmidt arrived for his Media Day interviews with his left hand heavily taped and a big smile to go with it.

The grad student middle linebacker, fully recovered from a Nov. 1 leg injury that truncated his 2014 season, insisted his new battle scars wouldn’t keep him off the practice field or out of games.

Schmidt said he broke a bone in his left thumb early in Saturday’s practice but didn’t realize it was broken until afterward. He’ll wear casts that will get progressively smaller week by week until he’s fully healed, but wasn’t sure how soon that would be.

Apples-to-apples comparison?

Kelly was posed Tuesday with comparing this Irish team with the 2012 team that played for a national title.

“Well (2015) is a faster team,” he said. “It’s a more athletic team. We were deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line.

“Maybe we don’t have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of the group is a whole different football team than that group. That was a unique group in that they knew how to win, had great leadership.

“Look, winning teams have a special group of guys that find ways to win, and that group did. But this is, from an athletic standpoint and from a physical prowess standpoint, a deeper football team.”

Captain conundrum

Kelly is mulling 10 players as possible team captains, names he’s submitted to the Faculty Board for approval, though the final number of captains will be far fewer.

It’s narrowing down the field that’s the problem — albeit a nice problem to have.

“The hesitancy is when you name a few, the other guys (are) not necessarily feel slighted, but I don’t want them to take a back seat either,” he said. “So I’m not in a hurry to name them, because the group is running pretty good on their own right now.

“So for me not naming them is not one of indecision or that we don’t have any. We have too many, more than anything else.”

Squibs

• Starting nose guard Jarron Jones, out for the season with an MCL tear in his right knee, tweeted on his Twitter account Tuesday evening that his surgery went well.

“The support over the past few days has been unreal,” he wrote. “Thanks to everyone for all the well wishes.”

• Kelly had crowd noise piped into Tuesday’s practice when freshman Justin Yoon was attempting field goals and when QBs Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer were attempting to run two-minute drills.

• Kelly called junior Torii Hunter ND’s most versatile receiver and promised, “You’re going to see a lot of him this year.”

Hunter was dominant in practice, both on routine plays and difficult, tightly defended catches.

Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell, center, has finality from the NCAA and is fully cleared to play for the Irish in 2015. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)