KeiVarae Russell runs into spotlight at Notre Dame Pro Day

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — KeiVarae Russell excitedly speed-talked his way through his post-Pro Day performance at a pace that would make an auctioneer jealous.

More pointedly, the former Notre Dame cornerback had a 40-yard dash time on Thursday to match (4.43 seconds), and other numbers in the jumps and 20-yard shuttle that make him even more of a puzzle.

A good kind of puzzle.

It’s up to the 71 NFL team reps from the 31 of 32 teams in attendance Thursday at the Loftus Center now to put it all together.

With the fact he still isn’t fully healed from a broken right tibia suffered Nov. 21 in a 19-16 Fenway Park escape of Boston College, that he performed Thursday with a strained hamstring, and that his entire catalogue of 2015 film needs to be viewed in the context that Russell played through the pain of a stress reaction in the leg that eventually snapped against BC.

“I did 3-4 weeks of hard training (for Pro Day),” the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Everett, Wash., product said. “That’s what’s scary. C’mon man.”

Sixteen other NFL Draft/camp hopefuls who wore a Notre Dame jersey at some point in their career joined Russell in the NFL Combine-style audition, including three who finished their careers elsewhere — quarterback Everett Golson (Florida State), center Matt Hegarty (Oregon) and safety Eilar Hardy (Bowling Green).

Only wide receiver Chris Brown, safety Matthias Farley and linebacker Jarrett Grace performed in every drill, with wide receiver Amir Carlisle and comeback story Ishaq Williams missing just one each.

Many of the 10 NFL Combine participants from ND rested on most of their skill-test performances from late February in Indianapolis, but every one of Thursday’s 17 participants did at least a little bit of something, including injured All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Smith put up 24 reps at 225 on the bench press Thursday and Grace 26. Only two linebackers at the NFL Combine repped more than either of those two.

The pivotal dates for Smith, though, are April 14-15 and have nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with the state of his left knee. That’s when he’ll return to Indianapolis for a medical recheck to see how his surgically repaired ACL and LCL are healing, but more critically if the nerve damage that showed up in his NFL Combine exams has improved.

If it has, Smith could start trending upward toward his pre-surgery draft expectations, when he was a sure-fire top 10 pick, though lower first round is a more realistic best-case scenario at this point.

Overall, Thursday’s performances kept Notre Dame in position to match or even exceed the last time the program produced double-digit draftees — 10 in 1994. The 2016 NFL Draft is set for April 28-30 in Chicago.

Golson is not expected to be drafted, but he still likely will end up in a camp. And Thursday’s Golson experience was bizarre, heart-warming and fascinating all at the same time.

The QB had six incompletions among his many throws to former teammates Brown, Carlisle, Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise during position drills, but he did manage an odd stat for a Pro Day — a fumble.

His arm strength was unquestioned. His accuracy was less than consistent. His finicking over footballs was decidedly challenged.

Golson initially only wanted to use the two of the footballs provided for him, protesting that the others were “too slick.” But a Carolina Panthers rep helping to run the drill let Golson know, in no uncertain terms, that he would use all the footballs, slick or not.

Brown was one who wholeheartedly welcomed Golson back and also helped his own draft stock along the way on Thursday.

The 6-foot-2, 193-pound receiver said the two have been working together on re-establishing chemistry a couple of times a week over the past two weeks. Brown would have done it more often, but he has a full load of classes to finish in order to get his degree in May.

“Two days ago, I was in the library finishing my thesis,” he said. “But I have great teachers. The whole time I’ve been here, whether It was doing something for training, they worked with me and have been with me every step of the way. I was glad to get some good results today, and I’ll be back at class tomorrow.”

Brown ran a 4.44 in the 40, broad jumped 10-feet-10 with a 33½-inch vertical jump Thursday among his measurables, all numbers that will sparkle on his resume. He had planned to do all his skill testing at the combine, but during his medical checks there, he was ruled out of participation because doctors in Indianapolis discovered a stress reaction in his leg.

“Of course (it was disappointing), because I didn’t feel anything (pain) in my training, even afterwards and up until now didn’t feel anything,” Brown said. “So it was unfortunate, ’cause I felt I was ready to run.

“I understood the policy. I tried to appeal it and the main guy who was running the combine gave me props as to how professional I took my appeal process. He just said we can’t for liability reasons, so it was all good.”

Sort of a positive under-the-radar number for Brown was his weight, 193. Brown played in the East-West Shrine Game in late January at 180, but wanted to answer questions about durability — even though that was never a problem at ND.

So he settled in the low 190s and was able to maintain his speed even with the weight gain.

“I definitely feel like I’m a big-time receiver,” Brown said. “I feel like I can make a lot of plays and have more explosion than I was able to show (last season). Just being able to get drafted, being able to hear your name called is a blessing in itself.

“Wherever I go, even if it’s the very last pick, I’ll be very happy with that.”

Russell, meanwhile, began his pre-draft journey in the late-round realm himself, and could have coaxed himself into round 2 territory on Thursday.

“I believe I can be a first-round draft choice,” Russell proclaimed.

His numbers sure looked that way.

Russell’s 11-2 standing broad jump would have ranked third ath the NFL Combine at any position and second among cornerbacks only to Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, who is in the mix to be the top overall pick in the draft.

His 4.0-second time in the 20-yard shuttle and his 38 ½-inch vertical would have ranked fifth among cornerbacks at the combine.

“Those were elite numbers at like 85-90 percent,” he said.

The last time Russell was truly at 100 percent was the first few days of training camp of the 2014 season, when he was arguably playing the best football of any player on the roster at that juncture.

But on Aug. 15, he, defensive end Ishaq Williams, linebacker Kendall Moore and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels were pulled off the practice field because of their role in an academic dishonesty investigation. Safety Eilar Hardy joined them in limbo two weeks later and was the only one of the five to return to action later in the 2014 season.

Russell was suspended from school and the team for the balance of the school year, but was reinstated by the school for the summer term and eventually by the NCAA to play in the 2015 season.

But in his ambition to make the most of his second chance, Russell overtrained. And early in August training camp his shin began to ache.

“I’m like, ‘OK, it’s a shin splint, it’ll go away.’ ” Russell recalled. “But eventually it came back and broke on me.”

In the meantime, the pain got worse. Russell said the coaching staff never pushed him to play, always giving him the option to walk away from his comeback. By midseason, he had to wear a protective boot when he wasn’t playing and made sure to hide it from those on the outside looking in.

“I definitely don’t regret (playing),” Russell said. “You’ve got to play hurt in the League. You have to. So when I tell those guys that I played with a stress fracture — not a sprained toe, or a sprained ankle, everybody plays with that —but a stress fracture, at corner?

“Trust me, I was in pain, but I was able to play through it, and I think I showed I was mentally tough.”

The tibia, Russell said, is expected to be healed up by the time he’d have to participate in minicamp in May. The hamstring, which he tweaked Friday night, should be better when his string of private workouts are likely to begin next week.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

PRO DAY CHART

pro day chart
Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell runs the 40-yard dash during Notre Dame's NFL football Pro Day in South Bend, Ind., Thursday, March 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)