Oct. 31, 2013
By Todd Burlage
Looking back now, it would have natural for KeiVarae Russell to become overwhelmed after hearing the proclamation from Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco just days before the national championship game in January.
"He'll probably be the best corner in the country before it's all said and done," Diaco said of Russell, with all the seriousness of an accountant on tax day. "I know he will."
Coaches freely pass praise and promises of greatness about their players all the time. But this particular declaration raised a few eyebrows. Because Russell, a true freshman last season, wasn't even supposed to be playing cornerback when training camp opened in August 2012, let alone have one of his coaches publicly set the loftiest of expectations in Russell's first season ever playing the position.
"When I first heard what Coach Diaco said, I thought it was unbelievable," Russell says. "But it was a great vote of confidence in the type of player I am and in my ability. Actually, I think it helped me become a better player. I agree with him in that I can become the best corner in the country. But I also know it is going to take a lot of hard work because nothing is ever given to you."
For background, Russell came to Notre Dame from Mariner High School in Everett, Wash., to play offense. Whether he would end up a slot back, running back or wide receiver, Russell's talents and playing experiences seemed best suited with the football in his arms. Russell played some limited defense as a safety in high school, but as a top-10 running back recruit, playing any defense in college - especially cornerback - never entered his mind, until injuries necessitated a position switch and opened a new career path.
"The coaches felt like moving me to corner was going to be best to help the team win, so that was all I needed to hear," Russell says. "I looked at the depth chart and moving to corner was going to be the best of both worlds. I was going to have the chance to play immediately as a freshman, and the coaches felt like the move was going to give our team the best chance of winning. I knew it was going to be a difficult challenge but I was up for it."
And so he was, making the move from the comfort and familiarity of running back to learning a position he had never played in his life, and doing so at the highest level of college football. Oh yeah, you better be a quick study, KeiVarae. You only have about two weeks to get ready because you're going to start the opening game.
"We were down on numbers," Russell says. "So I knew I was going to have to learn fast, play hard, and be ready to go. There wasn't any other choice, sink or swim." The enormity of what Russell was being asked to do didn't fully register until the depth chart was released for the season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, about two weeks before the game, and only about two weeks since Russell took his first practice snaps at his new position.
"Once I was projected to be a starter, that's when my nerves really started, right there," Russell recalls. "A true freshman coming in, a new position that I had only been playing for a couple of weeks, I was nervous at first because I was still trying to learn the position and I was going to be thrust into the spotlight." But with the help of his coaches - along with an unmistakable confidence and a short memory that every good cornerback must have - Russell stepped in and stepped up, climbing to the top of the depth chart when projected starter Lo Wood was lost last season on Aug. 20 with an Achilles tendon injury.
"There was some pressure, obviously, but at the end of the day I realized it's just football," Russell says. "I have been playing this game for a long time. I just had to go out there and play, apply what the coaches taught me, and just do what I've always done. I figured that I may as well go out there and show everybody why Notre Dame recruited me.
"Don't get me wrong, I still get nervous before every game" he confesses. "But once the game starts, I'm fine. You can't play nervous or you're going to make mistakes. And at cornerback, you can't make mistakes. I think it is good to be a little nervous before every game."
Russell didn't take long in adapting to his new position, playing well early and improving enough to hold down a starting cornerback spot in all 13 games last season. Russell not only developed into a key player in pass coverage with two interceptions but he also emerged as one of the best tacklers on the team. By season's end, Russell had finished fifth on the team with 58 tackles, including eight against Alabama in the national championship game.
"I'm very excited. I didn't know what to expect," says Russell, who is among the team leaders in tackles again this season. "The position switch has been great for me. I'm learning more and getting better every week. There is still a lot to learn and it's never easy, but I feel like I have come a long way and I feel much more comfortable out there this year compared to last year. I think I am in a good spot and I think the sky is the limit for me."
Without Russell's ability to learn quickly and become an instant success, there was no way Notre Dame was going to enjoy the undefeated regular season and make its run to the national championship game last season.
With three secondary starters graduated from the 2011 squad, along with season-ending injuries to Wood and safety Austin Collinsworth, the Irish defensive secondary was already considered the most vulnerable and questionable position group on the team. Add to the attrition and numbers shortage a lineup that included some of the best quarterbacks in the country such as Landry Jones at Oklahoma, Max Wittek at USC and Denard Robinson at Michigan, and pass coverage was going to be the area that would drag the Irish defense down last season. Right?
Apparently Russell, the Notre Dame defensive coaches, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly never got the message and just stuck with the next-man-in plan - an idea that seemed conceived out of desperation, but turned out to be the best move for both the team and the player.
Of course, opposing quarterbacks tried to pick on Russell in the passing game whenever possible, but found very little success in doing so. And by the season's end, the training wheels were off and Russell was being asked to cover an opponent's best receiver one-on-one.
In a 22-13 win over a USC last November that wrapped up an undefeated regular season and clinched a place in the national title game, Russell was given the responsibility of covering Trojans all-American wide out Marqise Lee. Not only did Russell respond with a key interception, he also broke up a potential touchdown pass to Lee during a goal-line stand that helped preserve the win.
"Working against the best receivers in the country is the only way to get better," says Russell, who landed on several freshman all-American teams after last season. The greater the challenge in front of Russell, the bigger his performance. "He's smart, and he's tough, and he's disciplined and coachable," Diaco says of his star pupil. "He knows that, and carries himself in that light, as a person that understands his gifts and embraces them."
From offensive unknown to defensive standout, the journey for Russell has been an interesting and a quick one, and a trip he has embraced the entire way, in no small part, because of a coach that saw great promise where few others did.
With only 21 career games at his new position, Russell is the first to admit he is still a work in progress and that the finer points of the cornerback position still come in bunches with every game. But combine the offensive skills that brought him to Notre Dame with the confidence and smarts it takes to be great defensive player, and maybe Coach Diaco's assessment last year wasn't very far off the mark after all.
"I think I am going to be the best corner in the country once all is said and done, just like Coach Diaco said last year. I really believe that I can become that," says Russell, confident enough to be comfortable where he is, smart enough to realize what it takes to get where he wants to be. "I am a lot better this year than I was last year, but you can never stop working. Experience can help make you better, but it is the hard work that makes you the very best."