CB KeiVarae Russell latest NFL Draft early entry from Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

KeiVarae Russell still doesn’t have clarity from the NCAA regarding a potential fifth year of football at Notre Dame.

And in the end, it didn’t matter.

The senior cornerback on Monday announced his intentions to enter the 2016 NFL Draft while forgoing his final season of eligibility , SI.com’s Pete Thamel reported.

“I’m back on track as far as progressing as a player,” said the 5-foot-11, 196-pound senior from Everett, Wash. “I’m ready to fulfill my dream and help out my family and do other things I wanted to do in my life.”

He’s the fourth early entry from a 10-3 Irish team that finished its season Friday with a 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

He joins offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller as draft underclassmen in this cycle, with Fuller the only true junior among them. Russell told SI he is a semester away from graduating and plans to do so.

Russell is also the fourth gleaming example of head coach Brian Kelly’s player development mantra, as all four projects significantly higher as pro prospects as they did coming out of high school, with Russell and Prosise having switched positions to boot.

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, who suffered a significant left knee injury in Friday’s Fiesta Bowl loss, is expected to announce his draft decision before the Jan. 18 deadline for underclassmen to do so.

Draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com projects Russell as a day three pick (rounds 4-7) in the April 28-30 draft, to be held in Chicago, and said Russell would have benefitted from a fifth year at ND if given the chance after missing the 2014 season because of academic misconduct.

Because that is the reason Russell sat out 2014, and not for medical or developmental reasons, that necessitated the NCAA appeal. It was not resolved by the time the cornerback made his draft decision and wouldn’t have factored in anyway, he said.

Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller, in his latest first-round mock draft on Monday, projected Stanley, Smith and Fuller as first-rounders, with Stanley projected to go third overall to the San Diego Chargers.

Smith, whom Miller had as the No. 2 overall prospect, dropped him to 14th, to Oakland, in the mock on the premise the injury was severe and yet still not knowing the specifics. Fuller projected as the 22nd overall pick, heading to Seattle.

Ohio State had the most projected first-rounders, with seven.

What life after Russell will look like in 2016, the Irish coaches got a long glimpse of at the end of 2015. He missed ND’s final two games after suffering a broken right tibia in ND’s 19-16 victory over Boston College, Nov. 21 at Fenway Park in Boston.

Russell, incidentally, told Thamel the break was a manifestation of a lower leg injury he struggled with all season. He finished the season with 60 tackles, including 3.5 for loss with a sack, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and four pass breakups.

Junior Cole Luke figures to be a starter at one cornerback, with junior Devin Butler, sophomore Nick Watkins and freshman Nick Coleman battling for the other starting spot and pushing Luke.

Butler started the Stanford game, Nov. 28, after Russell’s injury. Watkins started against Ohio State after Butler suffered an injury.

Freshman Shaun Crawford, who redshirted this season after suffering a preseason ACL tear, is expected to be heavily in the mix too, most likely at the nickel role he was targeted for before being lost for the season.

Freshman Ashton White, who redshirted for developmental reasons, often drew praise from Kelly for his progress on the practice field this past season.

There are three cornerbacks committed for the 2016 recruiting class — Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr., with Vaughn expected to be the most college-ready among them.

As for Russell’s future, he told Thamel he won’t participate in the workout portion of the NFL Scouting Combine, next month in Indianapolis. Instead, he’ll wait until ND’s Pro Day in March.

“I will be healed in the next few days,” he said, “but I want to be able to perform at my best with the same amount of training (others will have). I want to get back to where I was and I feel like when I come back, I’m going to come back stronger.”

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell, here tackling Clemson's Hunter Renfrow, has amped up his intensity and consistency in practice recently. (AP Photo/RICHARD SHIRO)