NOTRE DAME, Ind. – If KeiVarae Russell plays like he talks for the duration of his time at Notre Dame he is sure to wear out opposing receivers with regularity. From the time Russell sat down for interviews on Wednesday inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex his verbal RPMs were revved-up to more than 200 words per minute.
The freshman from Everett, Wash came to Notre Dame expecting to play receiver, but he has been a vital member of the Fighting Irish defense since being thrust into the starting line-up after fellow cornerback Lo Wood tore his Achilles tendon about a week before the season-opener with Navy in Dublin.
“He was like a brother, I’m not even gonna lie,” Russell said of Wood. “Lo helped me out every single day. The first couple weeks (of training camp) I was with him the majority of the time, because I play on the same side as Lo. When he went down it was like a mentor going down. That hurt me. When the coaches told me over the next few days in the film room that I was gonna start I was like ‘Uh Oh’.”
Russell says Wood and safety Jamoris Slaughter, who is out with a torn Achilles as well, both still help him in the film room and on the sidelines during games.
Russell has been in the starting lineup since day one, but things did not get off to a good start. Navy’s only touchdown in Notre Dame’s 50-10 victory came on a 35-yard pass play early in the second half and the man who caught the TD, Shawn Lynch, was Russell’s responsibility. He says that play is an example of the bond of the defense. He was hanging his head, but players like Manti Te’o told him to stay positive and keep playing.
“We’re always there for each other,” Russell began. “There’s no pointing fingers. There’s nobody taking all the credit. Everybody wants to go out and play. Everybody wants to make that play, but everybody at the end of the day – we’re all congratulating each other.”
Russell has moved forward from that play and has continued to get better and better as the season has progressed. He praised the Irish coaching staff for their daily focus on technique as the key to helping get to where he is on the field right now, yet he also knows he still has room to grow.
“I’m kind of sloppy right now. I admit that right now,” Russell candidly confessed of his play. ”As far as my technique I’m not as consistent as I know I could be. One day I’ll have a great day and the next day I’ll have an ok day, so I just have to get better each and every day to where it comes fluently.”
“It’s tough. It’s very tough even if you are experienced. Even the greatest sometimes get lazy. It’s tough to be a technician every single play, but that’s what I’m working towards.”
While Russell is hard on himself, it is amazing that he is even at the level he is performing at right now. When he enrolled at Notre Dame it was more likely that he would be a running back or slot receiver, but the Irish had young talents like Danonte’ Neal and Chris Brown on the offensive side of the ball as well as a slew of freshman signed at safety on defense.
Rather than possibly languish on the offensive depth chart, it made more sense for Russell to provide some depth at cornerback on the defensive side of the ball. He found out about the switch to cornerback about a week before fall training camp started after working out on campus at receiver all summer.
“I think the credit goes to the coaching staff for sure,” Russell said of how he has been able to accomplish so much so soon since making the transition. “Every day they tell us to focus on our technique and just not to get lazy, because sometimes a receiver or scout team might go slow we might slow up – they’re going slow, but we’re going fast (and) just trying to get better for each and every game.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had high praise for Russell’s ‘intangible’ traits this week as a big reason for the freshman’s early success.
“KeiVarae has a very strong love for the game and competition,” Diaco began in describing what he sees in Russell. “He has got enough of an ego and swagger to not allow the little hiccups that come to reshape his whole mental framework. He’s got enough love for the game and competitiveness and ego to maintain a healthy balance out there on the perimeter when the game’s on the line.”
When asked about Diaco’s assessment of his on field persona, Russell did not disagree.
“That always came with me all throughout high school and little league football,” Russell said of his self-confidence. “The coaches here actually helped me out. That first game when I allowed that touchdown against Navy I was kind of down on myself, but the coaches said playing corner that’s gonna happen. After that I took a change and when I make a mistake I just keep smiling and just work – let’s get better and erase that play and go to the next one.”
Russell played defensive back as a sophomore in high school, but he was predominantly a running back for his last two seasons at Mariner High. He rushed for 1,293 yards and 14 touchdowns last year despite missing three games due to injury. He also tallied 1,850 yards and 20 TDs as a junior.
This year’s transition to playing defense at a high level is still not an easy one, even for a gifted player like Russell.
“It’s tough,” Russell proclaimed of playing cornerback. “In high school I used to think corner was one of the easiest spots. I’ll admit that right now. In high school I was always somewhat faster, so all you gotta do is stay in front (of your man), but here even if they’re slower they can still beat you if you take your eyes off your man (or) if you take your eyes off the quarterback if it’s a zone. Corner is very tough. You gotta be a technician at corner.”
Russell has recorded 10 tackles in his first four games. He also had a 31-yard return after his first career interception against Michigan last week. The pick is one of eight the defense has recorded as well as one of 13 turnovers caused to help the team to a plus-9 turnover margin for the season. Russell says the turnovers the unit has caused is the result of the closeness and eagerness the defensive unit shares.
“I think it’s the group of guys we have,” Russell said of the defense. “We really want it. Our whole 11 are hungry. Every single play we want to get better. You see every game’s getting better and better. You’ve seen people going down, but I think we’re going up. Every single game we do something we haven’t done in the previous game. We don’t want to do what we did in the game before. We want to get better.”
If Russell and the defense keep getting better at their current rate the sky is the limit for years to come.