KeiVarae Russell had certain expectations for his role once starting cornerback Lo Wood went down with an Achilles injury during fall camp.
They mostly revolved around getting into the rotation. When Russell found out he would be a starter alongside Bennett Jackson, not even a month after being switched from slot receiver to defense, Russell wasn’t sure how to react.
“I was like, ‘Uh oh,’” Russell laughed.
When Russell moved over to defense he started leaning on Wood for guidance. That much hasn’t changed since the junior cornerback hit the injury list for the rest of the season.
Russell has the benefit Wood, safety Jamoris Slaughter and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks teaching during practice. Slaughter is also out for the year with an Achilles injury. All three helped prepare the freshman from Everett, Wash., for his first start against Navy.
During that game Russell surrendered a touchdown reception. Only then did he start to understand how up and down life as a cornerback can be. Russell played mostly safety in high school and not even that much as he got older.
“In high school I used to think corner was one of the easiest spots,” Russell said. “I’ll admit that right now. It looked so easy just to cover a guy. In high school usually I was always somewhat faster. I was like, ‘All you gotta do is stay in front.’ Here if they’re slower they can still beat you if you take your eyes of your man, if you take your eyes off the quarterback if it’s zone.
“Corner is very tough. You’ve got to be a technician at corner.”
Picking up the technical aspects of playing defensive back has been the biggest challenge for Russell through four games.
The simple truth, as he learned against Navy, is one breakdown in core fundamentals can lead to a touchdown for the other team. But the things that allowed Russell to make a smooth transition to the position in camp have helped him continue to make progress on a steady basis.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted a mental capacity to overcome mistakes and stay focused.
“He’s got enough of an ego and swagger to not allow the little hiccups that come to reshape his whole mental framework,” Diaco said. “So 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.”
Moving forward, the challenges will become more daunting. Road games against Oklahoma and USC later in the season represent matchups against veteran quarterbacks Landry Jones at Matt Barkley.
Miami looms this week at Soldier Field in Chicago after Hurricanes’ quarterback Stephen Morris passed for an ACC-record 566 yards last week against N.C. State.
Russell will continue to lean on his teammates, coaches and a mentality he has cultivated since childhood to stay positive no matter what.
“That always came with me through high school,” Russell said. “All through high school and little league football. I think the coaches here know it’s me. In that first game when I allowed that touchdown against Navy I was kinda down on myself. The coaches, they said, ‘Man, you’re playing corner. That’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.’
“After that I took a change. When I make a mistake, just come back and keep smiling. Just work. Get better and erase that play. Go to the next one.”