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Irish freshman CB Russell hasn’t looked back since switch to defense

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell right intercepts pass intended for Southern Californiwide receiver Marqise Lee left during first half an

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell, right, intercepts a pass intended for Southern California wide receiver Marqise Lee, left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — KeiVarae Russell still doesn’t want to screw up. But Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback has adjusted his goals considerably during the long road from Ireland to South Florida.

“Earlier in the year, I was worried about not letting the team fail,” Russell said. “Now I’m worried about helping the team win.”

Notre Dame’s rise to No. 1 was surprising for many reasons, but perhaps none so much as a secondary that had three converted offensive players who were first-year starters — junior corner Bennett Jackson (a converted receiver), sophomore safety Matthias Farley (a converted receiver) and the freshman Russell (a converted tailback).

But what was supposed to be a weak spot — and looked like it might be when Russell and Jackson were burned against ground-heavy Navy in Dublin — turned out to be just another strength for the nation’s top-ranked defense. Jackson had four interceptions, Russell had two and Farley was a force against the run and the pass.

Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said it’s “night and day” coaching pure defensive players as opposed to converted offensive players, but he said he never had a moment of panic, even after corner Lo Wood and safety Jamoris Slaughter, both seniors, were lost for the season.

“We knew whoever we put in there was going to play the way we needed to,” Cooks said. “And when you have a front seven like our front seven, as a secondary coach, it makes life a lot easier.”

In a surprising secondary, Russell has been the biggest surprise of all. The true freshman didn’t switch to defense until a couple of weeks before the season began, but he won the starting job when Wood went down. He admitted to being driven by fear early on but has grown more comfortable in his role.

“Now I’m at that stage where I just want to go out there and dominate,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of growing left to do; I’m probably at a 100 level, and I want to get to a 500 level. I’m still young, though, and I think I’ve grown significantly this year.”

The fear of failure still lurks within Russell — and still works in his favor. Cooks said Russell is in his office non-stop, peppering him with “20 questions a day” about his position and his performance. And Russell texts Cooks every Wednesday and Thursday, reminding Cooks to be extra hard on him, and to make sure his technique is right, because he doesn’t want to let his teammates down.

“You’ve got a kid like that, who’s willing and open to expose himself to criticism and coaching,” Cooks said, “what more can you ask for?”



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