Russell's presence aids Notre Dame CB Devin Butler's rise
SOUTH BEND — Devin Butler kept combing through his mental hard drive, trying to pinpoint the moment he transformed from afterthought to ascending talent.
It’s a metamorphosis that even the Notre Dame junior cornerback himself didn’t see coming.
“It’s still not sewn up yet,” he cautioned of his status as Notre Dame’s third cornerback, an important distinction, especially when Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder employs his third-down, pass-unfriendly packages.
There was a higher volume of film study in the time that bridged a relatively lost spring and progressively eye-opening two weeks of training camp in August, and certainly more meaningful film sessions for the 6-1, 200-pounder from Washington, D.C.
“Not just sitting there, blindly watching games,” he said, “but paying attention to the details.”
More maturity, improved confidence were themes he kept circling back to.
The reappearance of standout cornerback KeiVarae Russell on campus in June seemed to tie them all together.
It was Russell’s absence, due to academic suspension, in the 2014 season that created some growth and playing time opportunities for Butler, breaks that he admits now he wasn’t fully ready for.
Russell’s return theoretically limited Butler’s chances to move up the depth chart, based on numbers. But his inspiration has had the opposite effect.
“That’s my brother. I love that guy,” said Butler, who is on a trajectory to play alongside Russell in 11th-ranked Notre Dame’s Sept. 5 opener against Texas when ND goes to its nickel and dime looks on defense.
“He’s always pushing us to be great. He’s one of those guys that when you’re around him, you want to do so much better. You want to do the extra stuff. You want to do the extra reps. You want to match his intensity.
“It’s not easy, but that’s the fun part — seeing how much you can do.”
And now Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly is seeing it amidst a plethora of rising corners that include freshman Nick Coleman and sophomore Nick Watkins.
“He plays with so much more confidence, speed,” Kelly said of Butler. “He’s a different player than he was last year.
“If we were handicapping the corners (after spring practice), we would not have thought he’d be our third corner. He’s had a really, really good camp.”
Yet staying humble. Kelly was so impressed with Butler’s burst, including in the days that followed freshman prodigy Shaun Crawford’s season-ending knee injury on Aug. 19, that the coach had Butler lead the team through push-ups in Friday’s final practice before the team shifted into late-afternoon mode this week.
“I was in shock when coach came up to me before (that) practice,” Butler said. “I said, ‘Are you sure? Me?’ ”
It was jersey switch day after all, and Butler was wearing Coleman’s No. 24 uniform instead of his own 12 that day.
“I was definitely having fun getting up there,” Butler said, “and just having all the guys’ eyes on you.”
All eyes were on Butler late last season, when he started in place of injured Cody Riggs, against Arizona State and USC —teams that amassed 55 and 49 points, respectively in those games.
Overall Butler played in all 13 games last season, recording 23 tackles, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and an early-season interception against Purdue.
“You have to be prepared. You have to value every snap that you get, every rep that you get in practice and in the games,” Butler said of lessons learned in 2014. “You really have to be serious and professionalize your game.
“You think about what you could have done differently, and now I’m just thankful to have the opportunity.”
Not that Coleman and Watkins will stop pushing. Not that receivers Will Fuller, Corey Robinson — even the young risers Equanimeous St. Brown and C. J. Sanders — will stop testing. Not that Russell will stop demanding.
“You still have to go out there every day and work hard,” he said. We’re just so deep at the corner position, so every day it’s just a challenge. Everybody’s got to perform.
“Just trusting the process and just trusting my coaches and just knowing that through all the rough patches, it’s going to come out in the end and things will be good.”