NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Cornerback was a big area of concern for the Notre Dame football team entering the 2012 season. It quickly became a bigger concern when Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles and freshman KeiVarae Russell was thrust into a starting role in Wood's place.
That concern multiplied when Russell gave-up Navy's lone touchdown early in the second half of Notre Dame's 50-10 season-opening victory in Dublin, Ireland. Russell had spent all of last summer planning to play wide receiver in college, but the 5-foot-11 freshman took a crash course in cornerback play and would go on to start all 13 games opposite fellow cornerback Bennett Jackson.
"I think KeiVarae knows that he defaulted into that position," Fighting Irish co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks said of Russell. "But he didn't play like that and he hasn't approached it that way this off season. He's always asking questions and he's still hungry."
"I only have a year under my belt," Russell said of playing cornerback. "I'm still working, but as far as confidence and the ability to play (and) the will to know 'ok, I'm going in the game and I can play against you' - that confidence factor - I think that's where it's different."
Russell's athletic ability allowed him to shine almost as soon as jumping from offense to defense last fall. Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown were already at the position, but Russell quickly vaulted ahead of them on the depth chart and never relinquished his spot.
"Last year I just wanted to get in the game to play - just to get my feet wet," Russell said of his eagerness to play. "Coach Diaco didn't want to put too much on me as far as learning film or formations or anything. That's where I'm trying to take my game to the next level - just trying to be an elite corner as far as understanding film (and) understanding route concepts."
Wood's return from injury gives the Irish more depth at cornerback than they had a year ago. Jackson and Russell, who had no starts at corner between them, opened last season as the starters and now have 26 starts between them, while Wood adds veteran depth that was missing in 2012. He also adds competition in practice to push Russell harder.
"The one thing KeiVarae knows is that nothing is guaranteed here," Cooks said. "Just because you started 13 games for us last year doesn't mean you're going to be a starter entering 2013."
Russell knows having Wood back means he has to avoid complacency this spring and moving forward.
"You always have to," Russell said of staying motivated to keep his spot. "You never can feel complacent or content or just because I started my freshman year (means) I'm going to start next year or the year after that. I go into each and every day like I don't have a spot basically. I've been working my tail off like I don't have a spot (and) like I never had a spot. I feel like it's threatened every day; that's how I look at it."
Russell is a sponge for knowledge. The sophomore to be constantly quizzes Cooks at practice to learn more about coverages and the Irish defense, but Russell is constantly improving.
"It's like night and day," Cooks said of Russell's progress from last fall. "He was like a piece of clay coming into August, because he was a running back in high school. The good thing about that is we could mold him into what we wanted him to be and he didn't have any bad habits as a defensive back."
"Last year he was just trying to get lined up and figure out what he could do," Cooks continued. "Now he knows what the safety is doing and where his help is at. It's going to allow him to play a little more aggressively when he can understand when he can't."
Russell is not only gaining more wisdom, but also more swagger - an intangible ingredient for playing cornerback. It comes not only with learning through film study and practice, but also with playing on Saturdays.
"It comes with experience," Russell said of gaining more and more confidence at corner. "Like when they kept throwing me in the water (last season) every single game I got a little bit more man coverage."
"It comes with the territory of playing corner," Russell continued. "Whether someone catches a touchdown on you or not, you've just gotta feel like this next play this is my island."
Russell's breakthrough game came against Oklahoma's pass happy offense. The Fighting Irish played more man to man coverage in that game than they had in any previous game last season, but walked away with a 30-13 victory in Norman. Battling the likes of Sooner receiver Kenny Stills instilled confidence in the freshman that he belonged at cornerback.
Battling against Irish receivers TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels in practice this spring has continued to foster that attitude, but he knows he is still learning.
"I'm still young, so I've got guys like Bennett Jackson showing me the ropes," Russell said. "Our coach has been here for four years now going into this year, so we have the luxury of having coaches that have been here for four years. Now days in college football you see many coaches are gone. We still have a bond as a team, so it doesn't feel as different."
The Irish coaching staff is intact, but the names on the field always change in college football. Russell and the Irish defense have to move on after the graduation of Manti Te'o. The Heisman runner-up's intangible assets will be hard to replace, but Russell has seen great leadership from others on the defense throughout the winter and spring.
"Manti Te'o was one of the greatest players to ever come to Notre Dame, so you can't really compare anyone to Manti," Russell said of his former teammate. "But people lead in different ways. (Such as) Dan Fox - he's not a 'Manti' leader, but he's his own leader (also) Bennett Jackson and Louis Nix - they lead in different ways."
"Manti was a vocal leader. He led by almost every aspect of life basically," Russell continued. He was a great athlete (and) great student. Not everyone can be like a Manti Te'o, but everyone on our team leads in different ways."
Russell mentioned players like Jarrett Grace, Ben Councell and Carlo Calabrese as teammates who have stepped-up their games this spring. He says he likes what he has seen from the defense during spring drills.
"Each and every day we're progressing as a defense," Russell beamed. "Every day it seems like we're getting better and better. We're starting to understand each other. (We) understand each other's capabilities. "
A year under his belt and the 12-1 record the Irish were able to produce last year have given Russell confidence and a swagger. He and the Irish had their wake-up call with their 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Title Game. Russell has packed on 10 pounds of muscle since then to become an even better and more physical player.
"Every time I'm in the weight room I think about that," Russell said of the lasting reminder of playing the bigger Crimson Tide. "Sometimes I watch the Alabama film. Me personally, I have over a hundred plays where I messed up. I asked coach to make (the tape) where I missed some tackles and some bad coverages. It just looks terrible."
"If you want to have a great career you can't be just a great cover guy," Russell said. "You've gotta be strong (and) you've gotta be able to set the edge. You've gotta be able to come up and make tackles and push them back."