Weather Updates

Converted RB KeiVarae Russell is turning the corner for Notre Dame

Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jacks(2) celebrates an interceptiagainst Purdue with teammate KeiVarae Russell (6) Carlo Calabrese during second half an

Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) celebrates an interception against Purdue with teammate KeiVarae Russell (6) and Carlo Calabrese during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 20-17. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

storyidforme: 37907504
tmspicid: 13901007
fileheaderid: 6396958

Updated: November 4, 2012 6:24AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — KeiVarae Russell had one thought when Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks told him, in the wake of Lo Wood’s season-ending Achilles injury in training camp, that he would be starting at cornerback when the season opened against Navy in Ireland.

“It was like, ‘uh-oh,’ ” Russell said.

A true freshman recruited as a running back, Russell was just starting to figure out that cornerback wasn’t nearly as easy as he had always figured. It wasn’t just about who’s the fastest or who’s the most athletic. It was about technique and footwork and anticipation skills and experience and all the other things Russell simply didn’t have with two whole weeks of cornerback play under his belt.

And now he was going to be starting? Alongside another first-year starter in Bennett Jackson?

“Uh-oh,” Russell said again. “Now it’s time to step up.”

Russell is not a guy hurting for confidence. On the field, he walks and plays with a swagger that belies his youth. Off the field, he talks as fast as he runs, and he held court with the ease of a fifth-year senior during his first media session, shaking hands and introducing himself — “Hi, I’m KeiVarae” — to each of the dozen or so reporters who shoved a microphone or recorder in his face.

But it’s fear that’s driving him during his freshman season, fear that keeps him working hard after practice, fear that has him playing at a high level at a position he had no business playing.

“That’s one thing I kind of worry about now — I don’t want to get beat,” Russell said. “(The receiver) might not be faster or bigger or stronger than me, but I still have that fear — I don’t want to get beat.”

It didn’t take long for that fear to be realized. In the opening drive of the third quarter against Navy, Russell was beaten — burned, really — for a 25-yard touchdown pass against a team hardly known for its passing prowess.

Russell took it hard. But he also took it as a valuable learning experience. Playing cornerback is about technique and it’s about confidence, yes. But it’s also about having a short memory.

“I was kind of down on myself,” Russell said. “But the coaches said, ‘You’re playing corner. It’s going to happen.’ After that, I learned if you’re going to make a mistake, just come back and keep smiling and just work. Erase that play and go to the next one.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly said that mature attitude was evident — with Russell more than any other incoming freshman — during his recruiting conversations in Everett, Wash. And defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said that attitude is the key to Russell’s success, since the 5-11, 182-pounder has all the physical tools.

“He’s got enough of an ego and a swagger to not allow the hiccups that come to reshape his whole mental framework,” Diaco said. “He’s got enough love of the game, competitiveness and ego to maintain a healthy balance.”

It’s showed in the three games since the opener. Russell has made 10 tackles, broke up a pass at Michigan State and picked off Michigan’s Denard Robinson.

Of course, he’s only been playing the position for two months now. He remains very much a work in progress. And Saturday’s game at Soldier Field against Miami could be the toughest test yet. The Hurricanes are averaging 328 yards per game through the air with an offense featuring quarterback Stephen Morris and receivers Phillip Dorsett (28 catches, 464 yards) and Rashawn Scott (17 catches, 326 yards).

“You’ve got to have confidence,” Russell said. “If you don’t have confidence, you’re going to lose. … But it takes more than confidence. You’ve got to keep at it every day.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.