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November 2, 2013

Educating KeiVarae Russell

It was almost as if KeiVarae Russell couldn’t help himself, as if there was a burst of emotion that just had to spill out when the situation didn’t absolutely demand a serious approach.

It might be a Thursday practice or a Friday walk-through, or maybe in the meeting room when a light moment didn’t seem matter one way or another.

But after Notre Dame’s 41-30 loss to Michigan in the second week of the season gave the Irish their first regular-season setback since 2011, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks felt the need to have a heart-to-heart with the sophomore cornerback.

“Coach Cooks pulled me aside and said, ‘Dude, you’ve got all the talent and all the athleticism, but that’s not going to get you anywhere,’” Russell recalled. “Once he told me that, it changed me. I now believe I can be one of the best. But you’ve got to put in the work. I don’t want to be one of those guys who is all talk. I want to walk the walk.”

Russell has indeed taken his game up a couple of notches as the Irish head into Saturday’s clash with Navy in Notre Dame Stadium. He enters the game sixth on the team in tackles, and tied for first in unassisted stops with 29. He leads the team in passes broken up with five - more than twice as many as any defensive player.

Russell’s sturdy play on the edge of the defense last Saturday against Air Force - he tied his season high of six stops - as well as a key fumble recovery helped set the tone for Notre Dame’s second straight second-half shutout.

“He’s become much more of a student of the game,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s not just an athlete playing the cornerback position anymore, which is how he came into the season. By mid-season, he became somebody that has now developed himself into a cornerback.

“He understands the position. He understands the split of the receiver and how it might affect the route. He understands his sequencing within coverages. Coach (Kerry) Cooks obviously has done a great job of helping in that development of him being a corner and understanding his position.”

Russell’s natural effervescence has been both a blessing and a bit of an albatross in his transition from standout high school running back to cornerback. On one hand, his optimistic, energetic approach to life allows him to accept challenges and bounce back from the inevitable failures that come with the island that is cornerback. On the other hand, it slowed his development through the first year-and-a-half on the job.

“His demeanor certainly helped in making the decision (to move him from running back to cornerback),” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that I thought could handle both success and failure. But his demeanor also needed to change a little bit this year for him to move to that next level. He needed to be more focused on his craft.”

Russell says he’s seen the light.

“I used to come to practice to prepare, but I used to goof around, too,” Russell said. “Now, I treat it as my job. I go to practice or to a meeting to go to work. When Coach Kelly said I was more of a student of the game, I really took that to heart.”

Now that Russell can see how good he can be, his perspective has changed.

“When they first switched me, I was kind of questioning it because they recruited me for offense and didn’t really mention corner,” Russell said. “Coach Cooks would say, ‘You’ve got this and you’ve got that.’ And I’d be like, ‘Are you sure? I still kind of want to play offense.’ But then I began to realize what they were talking about.

“As I got used to the position, I thought, ‘This kind of does fit me.’ I talk a lot at times to my opponent. I’ve got a short-term memory. It was like, ‘I guess I do have a corner mindset.’ I’ll make a play in practice and I’ll think to myself, ‘Okay, that’s why they moved me here.’”

There’s no greater teacher than learning through trial and error.

“The struggle really helped me see what I needed to work on and how hard I needed to work,” Russell said. “Yeah, what Coach Cooks said to me after the Michigan game was a little harsh, but I definitely needed it, and I thank him every day for it.”

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