KeiVarae Russell is nothing if not talkative.
Last week Russell met with media for the first time during spring practice, where suddenly the former high school running back turned slot receiver turned cornerback is a veteran in the defensive backfield. It came as no surprise he lingered longest in the auditorium.
Interviewer after interviewer came by with cameras and voice recorders to get a sound bite from one of the most loquacious players on the team.
Turns out opposing players might be getting a heavier dose of that in the fall. Through a handful of practices Russell has found it simpler to talk with receivers in the new, aggressive man-to-man defense preferred by coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Let the trash talk commence.
“It’s way easier because he has no excuse now,” Russell laughed. “It’s me and you the entire day. Just me and you. Yeah, a lot easier.”
Russell prefers the coverage changes for reasons beyond making conversation. Approaching three years since switching to cornerback, Russell wants to showcase his talent while becoming a de facto leader at the position group.
Gone to graduation is the veteran presence of Bennett Jackson, leaving Russell with the most game experience at cornerback.
Senior Matthias Farley moved over from safety. Sophomore Cole Luke logged minutes at nickel back last season. Devin Butler is recovering from shoulder surgery this spring after playing some during the fall. Florida transfer Cody Riggs won’t arrive until the summer.
Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown and Rashad Kinlaw have yet to break through at the position.
Russell knows having a strong junior season will help on two levels: Bringing stability at cornerback and improving his chances at making it in the NFL. He’s approaching both with a typical alpha dog mentality.
“I don’t like saying if I get there,” Russell said. “I like saying ‘when.’ When you say ‘if’ you’ve got doubts. You might occasionally hear me say, ‘When I get to the league.’ It’s not arrogance. It’s just I don’t like saying ‘if.’ It runs through my mind, yeah, but I’m really focused on this year. I’ve gotta have a breakout junior year and I think I will.”
VanGorder will give Everett, Wash., native all kinds of chances to flash his talent.
Over the first four practices this spring Russell estimated playing zone defense “maybe eight times,” a sea change from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut.
Russell has embraced a more attacking style.
“It’s really no technical difference at all,” Russell said. “We played man-to-man last year just not as much. You’ve gotta be on your (stuff) each and every play … It’s so true. You’ve got to work on your craft each and every day. Each and every snap has to be perfect. If there’s 76 plays, all 76 have to be perfect.”
That system could put the defensive backs in better position to make game-changing plays. Russell hopes so.
He and Bennett Jackson combined for three interceptions last season while starting all 13 games. Russell had one. Jackson also forced a fumble while Luke, playing mostly in sub packages, didn’t force any turnovers.
Russell wants to be in position to play the ball and get his hands on it even more.
“I’m not even gonna lie, I’m pressing or playing off each and every play,” he said. “I’m excited for it. That’s how you create turnovers, break up a lot of passes, have opportunities to get around a lot of balls and pick it off. Just being close to guys, making plays. That’s what I wanna do. I wanna be a corner that locks a guy down but when the ball is in the air makes a play on it too.”
Combining previous concepts with the new stuff under VanGorder should give Russell a uniquely rounded skillset. Experience should let Russell push forward rather than be slowed by a change.
Sticking it out at cornerback has proven a prudent choice.
“I’m never a quitter so I just wanted to keep pushing at this position,” Russell said. “I haven’t perfected it yet but I believe I’ve become a pretty good corner. The sky’s the limit for me.”