The bruise from the crimson No. 42 helmet that landed on KeiVarae Russell’s chest didn’t fade for two weeks. And Russell could feel it there for two long and uncomfortable weeks.
Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell has added 10-12 pounds since the national championship game in Miami.
Alabama running back Eddie Lacy imposed his will on most of the Notre Dame defense in the BCS title game whooping he helped to orchestrate. When the 230-pound Lacy came face to face with Russell, more than 50 pounds his lesser, the matchup was almost comical.
“I was at 178 in the BCS game. I’m not gonna tackle Lacy at 178. That’s just not going to work,” Russell said. “I felt it every time he ran. I just thought this isn’t going to work.”
The Irish cornerback said he added a “coat of armor” in the last three months and is fluctuating between 188 and 190 pounds midway through his first collegiate spring practice. The extra weight, and a full season facing a who’s who of college football receivers, has freed him from his freshman fears.
Russell’s transformation from a running back/wide receiver hybrid player to a Freshman All-America team cornerback was as big of a surprise as any in South Bend last fall. He stepped in for an injured Lo Wood in August and started all 13 games for the Irish. He said he spent most of the year just hoping to go unnoticed.
Notice, he thought, was more likely to be negative — a broken assignment, a long touchdown pass over his head — for a rookie learning to play a brand new position on the fly. His natural athleticism, smooth hips and a generous safety net provided by the rest of the Notre Dame defense helped protect him from getting burnt while he figured things out. Now, he’s ready to seek out some attention.
“I think just getting over that factor of fear, fear of letting people down,” said Russell when asked what changed most in him from August to April. “I like when I have the pressure on me now. … Throw it over here. Let’s make plays.”
Russell said it was a primetime win over Oklahoma in late October that helped him really break through that urge to hide. Notre Dame’s game plan forced Russell to play man coverage with Oklahoma’s top-flight receivers such as Kenny Stills and Jalen Saunders.
They combined for 267 yards receiving, but neither scored or ever truly got behind the secondary. Russell finished the game second among Irish defenders with nine tackles and felt for the first time like he could hang.
“Coaches said they believed in me after that game, and I was like ‘OK, we gotta get going.’ I always knew I had the talent, but that only goes so far,” Russell said. “You’ve gotta have that mindset, that savvy.”
Irish assistant coach Kerry Cooks said he and the staff purposefully took their time building Russell’s mindset before letting him test himself against the Sooners.
“The worst thing that you want to do is kill a young corner’s or a DB’s confidence. We wanted him to get some games under his belt to where he felt comfortable,” Cooks said. “He adjusted to the speed of the game, he adjusted to the different size of the wide receivers, the running backs, and once we felt he had gotten comfortable with that, then we slowly opened up our playbook.”
The safety net is much smaller, if not altogether withdrawn, this spring. Russell said he expects Cooks and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to call whatever defense the want next season.
He had Cooks put together a blooper reel of all the bad plays from his first season — a tip he picked up from former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o. The tape was longer than Russell had hoped, but it helped him get over the fear of making mistakes.
“It took a few days to watch. I couldn’t watch it all at once,” he said.
Russell said he’s made it a point to play more aggressive this spring. He seeks outs top receivers like DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones in one-on-one drills. He said the weight he put on during the winter months allows him to be as much the hammer as the nail in collisions when playing against the first-team offense. He’s starting to hand out a few bruises of his own.