Will reality check help KeiVarae Russell corner redemption?
SOUTH BEND — The unforgiving jolt of reality struck KeiVarae Russell when he was watching old film of himself, trying to figure out why his aspirations weren’t synching up with the white noise seeping into his world.
What started as whispers lost their subtlety. Notre Dame’s high-ceiling, fast-talking, big-dreaming, senior cornerback was suddenly on the defensive —off the field.
“Everybody’s falling off the bandwagon,” he said Wednesday night after practice as 14th-ranked Notre Dame (5-1) preps for the 87th rendition of its rivalry with USC (3-2), Saturday night (7:30 p.m., NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium. “I’m cool with that.”
What he wasn’t cool with was that when he watched recent footage of himself, compared to his earlier seasons, Russell realized it wasn’t what redemption should look like.
And he worked too hard to get back to Notre Dame for atonement not to be draped all over his 2015 season, a season made possible free of NCAA encumbrances because of his drive to take the equivalent of 18 semester hours at Everett (Wash,) Community College in his hometown last winter/spring and pull a 4.0 GPA when he was in academic/disciplinary exile from ND for a school year.
And get a job to pay for it all. And work with a personal trainer regularly, and by himself when no one was watching.
Now here Russell is, days away from the game on ND’s schedule where cornerback play is most critical, and he’s trying to convince the world, in a sense, he’s not an enigma.
The solace in all this for the 5-foot-11, 196-pounder, who came to Notre Dame as a running back with some slot receiver skill set mixed in, is that he no longer has to convince himself.
“I realize it was my preparation in practice,” Russell said. “You miss a year, you’ve really got to go hard in practice. You guys know me. You know the intensity I bring to the game. I play hard. But I wasn’t playing hard each and every single play (in practice).
“There were certain plays where, I’d go through the motions. You can’t do that. Last week, I probably had my best game against Navy. And I practiced well. Same with this week. I’ve been practicing my butt off. I wish I could show you guys film.
“Each and every day you can’t take a play for granted. That’s what I realized — and I think I realized it at the perfect time.”
USC brings an interim head coach to South Bend for the second time in three years, this time offensive coordinator Clay Helton, but they won’t be playing an interim quarterback.
Led by senior quarterback Cody Kessler, USC has the 17th-most prolific passing offense and the fourth-most efficient.
When pressed by one media member Wednesday night about what makes Kessler so good, it was the one point during his mega-quote session that Russell measured his words and essentially said nothing.
“I don’t know,” he said, knowing his not-entirely flattering pregame comments about Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson were thrown back in his face when the teams played on Oct 3.
He wasn’t shy, though, about expressing his disdain for USC, which he admitted was an acquired distaste.
When heavily favored and top-ranked USC edged a Notre Dame climbing back into national relevance, 34-31, 10 years ago this month in the “Bush Push” game, Russell was cheering for the Trojans.
“I wore ‘5’ in high school because of Reggie Bush,” Russell said of the former USC All-American and eventual reneged Heisman Trophy winner.
“I was watching the game and I was going crazy. I didn’t care about Notre Dame. But when you get here, you kind of — I don’t want to say hatred, because that’s a strong word — but the dislike for USC manifests within you.
“I really dislike those guys now. Now, I’ve got friends there, but you really dislike them. You could feel the atmosphere, the tension around campus, knowing it’s USC week.”
USC did recruit Russell and hard, but he was put off that the Trojans came in so late in the process.
“I was like, ‘Man, how bad you want me?’ “ Russell said with a laugh.
Recently deposed USC coach Steve Sarkisian, fired Monday, did recruit Russell very hard and early. But he was the head coach at the University of Washington at the time. And he came the closest to landing the Washington prep standout.
“When I was on my official visit, he was with my family the whole entire time,” Russell said of Sarkisian. “I was one of his biggest recruits. A lot of coaches like to keep their in-state guys, and so he was hard on me recruiting.
“I really like Sarkisian a lot. It’s tough that’s he’s going through what’s he’s going through.”
According to reports, Sarkisian has since entered an out-of-state treatment facility.
“I wish my Trojans the best against Notre Dame and for the remainder of the season,” Sarkisian tweeted on his Twitter account Wednesday evening. “No one will be cheering them on more than me. Fight On!”
The pass defense Sarkisian’s former team will encounter Saturday night, ranks a respectable 32nd nationally, but hasn’t faced an offense anywhere near as prolific as USC’s.
While the bottom line looks stable, consistency hasn’t come with it. Only senior strong safety Elijah Shumate has played without baffling sequences among Russell, fellow cornerback Cole Luke and free safety Max Redfield, the latter of whom spent months in USC’s 2013 recruiting class before a late flip to ND.
For his part, Russell is third on the team in tackles with 32 and has 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups to go with it. But so far no interceptions.
The swirl of uncertainty in the back end of the defense has kept defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder from being as daring as he’s wanted to be in the front end, with pressures and blitzes.
“Most astute football coaches would say that it starts on the back end,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you can play man coverage, you get a lot more variety, and certainly we feel like we can play man.
“That allows us to do some more things, and we feel Cole and KeiVarae are capable of doing that. I think this stretch of games are going to allow us to do a little bit more of that after getting through the two option teams over the last month.”
Russell admitted the option games, against Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 and Navy last weekend, aren’t easy on a cornerback’s evolution.
“I’m not a man of excuses,” he said. “Everybody, including myself, expects so much of a player of my caliber.”
And Russell’s expectation is that the rust from the year off and the radically different defensive scheme he walked back into shouldn’t be active story lines anymore.
“I think we’ve got to be more disciplined,” Russell said of the Irish secondary as a whole. “We’ve got to be more aggressive and trust our pressure, trust our blitzes are going to get home.”
And trust that his personal revelation will help him start to ascend.
“I’ve got to focus on myself and being the player I can be to help this team win,” Russell said. “That’s the only thing I’m worried about. I realize I need to be a better player for this defense to win a championship.”
WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)
WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 6 1/2