Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell teeters on edge of NFL decision

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — KeiVarae Russell was one of the last ones to leave the locker room Friday, despite the fact that he didn’t play.

The bombastic 5-foot-11, 196-pound cornerback huddled in a corner with Chris Brown, another senior, six weeks after laboring on a fractured tibia into the dugout at Fenway Park. It was understandable that Brown might want to prolong the bittersweet moment — to squeeze every last drop out of a memorable four-year career.

Eighth-ranked Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to No. 7 Ohio State in the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium was Brown’s final collegiate game.

But as for Russell?

“You won’t miss it, trust me,” he said, when asked when he’ll announce his future intentions. “You won’t miss it. You’ll find out soon. You won’t miss it.”

Russell, who missed Notre Dame’s final two games (both losses) after fracturing his right tibia in a 19-16 victory over Boston College on Nov. 21, may choose to either declare for the NFL Draft by Jan. 18, or submit a waiver to the NCAA for a fifth season of eligibility.

Because Russell’s lost season in 2014 was tied to an academic suspension, not an injury, that fifth year is far from guaranteed.

Unfortunately for Russell, Friday’s experience has become an all-too-familiar routine.

“It’s definitely been tough, but this (period of missing games) is a little different, just because last year I couldn’t even go to the game,” he said. “I couldn’t do much. I couldn’t be with the team. It’s tough now, but being around my team makes it easier.

“I can go to games. I can still go to team meals, be in the locker room with these guys. It kind of copes with the stress that I go through a little better, but it’s still tough, because I love the game of football.

"I love playing, so it’s tough just watching — watching them this close. Watching them lose, it’s even tougher. I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked, seen the tears in these guys’ eyes, because they care so much. That’s the tough thing about it.”

And now, Russell transitions into a tough decision. His health shouldn’t play much of a factor, however, as the Irish cornerback — who has dubbed himself “Wolverine,” due to his ability to rapidly heal — continues to progress more than six weeks after the injury.

“I’m extremely healthy. They’re telling me that I’m ahead of schedule,” he said. “I’ve been on the (footwork) ladder, been doing the workouts, moving as quick as possible. You wouldn’t even tell I was hurt. I’m fine.”

If he were to return to Notre Dame, Russell would carry a wealth of experience into his final season. The Everett, Wash., native started 26 consecutive games in 2012 and 2013, then started 10 more after re-enrolling this season. He recorded 60 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2015.

On Friday, he was nostalgic, teetering halfway out of the door between South Bend and the next great challenge.

“There have been so many ups and downs,” Russell said. “It’s just fun, man, to play at Notre Dame, to see yourself grow. I think that’s what it is. My ceiling is so high. I’m still young at the position.

"This is technically only my third year starting. I think it’s really exciting to see where my future can go from here and what I learned here — going through two different (defensive) coaching staffs, different coaches, learning different techniques.

“As far as looking at my past, I’m excited to have played here and played with guys like Chris Brown, Ronnie Stanley, Jaylon Smith, Manti Te’o. That’s what I’m fortunate about. I was fortunate to play with a great group of guys.”

In a locker room littered with empty chairs and funky aromas, the seniors were the only ones left. In one nook, Russell and Brown. In another, linebacker Joe Schmidt — still defiantly wearing his jersey. On the other side of the room, there stood Ronnie Stanley, humoring some local reporters, his future a straight shot to the top of the NFL Draft.

For most of them, it was over. For Russell, maybe not.

“I think we’re leaving (the program) at a good spot. I say ‘me’ as in my senior class,” Russell explained. “I’m very proud of these guys — myself, Chris Brown, Ronnie Stanley. I think we really changed this program to where we’re on a rising trend.

“We were just a few plays away from being on the top this year. A few guys away, too,” he added with a laugh. “It’s been fun. I think we’re on a good streak.”

Decked out head to toe in Notre Dame gear, the team’s most charismatic corner again gravitated to the spotlight. He spoke fast, joked fast, laughed fast — a hurricane of enthusiasm perhaps headed out of town.

“I don’t have a timetable (for my decision),” Russell said. “‘Soon’ could be tomorrow. ‘Soon’ could be a week and a half. Just soon.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell (6) hugs his family on Senior Day, Nov. 14 before taking on Wake Forest. Will he be back at ND for another one next November? (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)