Chicago Colleges: KeiVarae Russell

Irish lunch links

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
11:00
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I'll take Rory again this weekend. You?

Russell's stock continues to rise

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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KeiVarae Russell received the Sheldon Day treatment this week from Mel Kiper Jr., with the ESPN NFL draft guru pegging Russell as his No. "5C" cornerback on his list of the top underclassmen at the position .

Russell had some more love this week from another list that projects big things for him in 2014, as SportsOnEarth's Matt Brown named him to college football breakout team for this fall.

Both writers laud Russell's impact from the get-go with the Irish, as he was thrust into a starting role from Day 1 following Lo Wood's camp Achilles' tear. Russell had arrived at Notre Dame that summer as a running back. Kiper likes Russell's tackling, while Brown sees a bigger spotlight — along with a new defensive coordinator who favors press coverage, as Brian VanGorder does — resulting in an opportunity for Russell to emerge as a star. Brown cites an underrated secondary from last season that returns most of its key bodies, as the Irish ranked 16th in the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (6.3) last year.

If Notre Dame's defense is going to be strong in VanGorder's first season, the secondary will likely be a big reason why. That could mean more big things for Russell, a player who does not shy away from the spotlight.
Three Notre Dame players were named preseason All-Americans by college football guru Phil Steele, with linebacker Jaylon Smith leading the Irish pack by making the second team.

In what might come as a slightly bigger surprise, tight end Ben Koyack made the third team and cornerback KeiVarae Russell made the fourth team. Koyack's stock obviously is rising after a strong finish to last season, especially with Troy Niklas having left early for the NFL. Now a senior in the No. 1 tight end role, Koyack will be counted upon to become an integral part of the Irish's passing game, which has featured no shortage of tight end success in recent years. Steele obviously sees a lot in the Oil City, Pennsylvania, native, who caught 10 passes last season for 171 yards and three scores.

Russell, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive strong seasons at corner and, in keeping with his usual unfiltered self, has talked openly about trying to become the best cornerback in the country. Playing more press coverage under new coordinator Brian VanGorder should only help in that effort, and it would not be a huge shock if Russell were to play his way into first-team or second-team All-America status by season's end.

DaVaris Daniels, arguably the Irish's best skill player, did not make any of the 30-man teams, though receiver looks to be a ridiculously stacked position throughout the nation this year. If Daniels can pick up where left off with Everett Golson two years ago, and if his off-site training during his spring exile pays dividends, the redshirt junior figures to be one of the better receivers in the country.

One familiar name at receiver who did garner preseason All-America status was Deontay Greenberry, who was once committed to Notre Dame and enters his junior season at Houston on Steele's fourth team.

Florida State, which hosts Notre Dame Oct. 18 in the Irish's first true road game, led the nation with five first-teamers and 11 total players on Steele's list.

Historic draft weekend for Notre Dame

May, 12, 2014
May 12
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Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints

Notre Dame mailblog

May, 9, 2014
May 9
9:00
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Happy Mother's Day to all of the great moms out there. Now, onto your questions ...

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt! This question is around the new FieldTurf. In the past, the grass was always "hit or miss" as an advantage. (Unofficially), ND could grow the grass to limit opponents with better athletes, and vice versa. Do you think the FieldTurf decision was in part signed-off on because Coach Kelly is recruiting better athletes, and that more of these athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school anyway, which helps future recruiting? Do you think this is a good move for ND, putting tradition aside? Thanks as always, and great work!

Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike. While I understand some of the attachment that many had to playing on a traditional grass field, I think in the end this decision was a no-brainer. Yes, Brian Kelly has recruited better athletes at Notre Dame. And yes, many of those athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school. But at the end of the day, the field that the Fighting Irish had been playing on by the end of last season (and in the spring game) was nothing short of an embarrassment. The players, most of all, deserved better, and they are the ones whose preference mattered most on a decision like this. There are other positives that could come from this as well, be it a hockey game or a concert taking place at Notre Dame Stadium.

Richard from Austin, Texas writes: Is the ACC the right place for ND? Though ND can afford travel, a regional conference is better. A 10-team conference with an 11 game season for example: ND, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, NIU, Bowling Green, Toledo, Central MI, Eastern MI plus 2 non-Conference games: USC & Navy. Every FBS team needs to move to a regional conference with 10 teams based on the Power Five. The SEC with 3, B1G with 3, ACC with 2, PAC with 2, Big XII and a 12th from the old PAC.

Matt Fortuna: Richard, that's a lot to digest, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Notre Dame brand would be greatly diminished by playing only regionally. Part of the football program's luster is that it plays across the nation and attracts a countless number of fans, many of whom don't even know where the school is located. (Trust me, I grew up with people like this.) At the end of the day, the ACC agreement was perfect for the Irish, who can show their product off from Boston to Miami while, football-wise, protecting that national brand. The only thing Midwest about the rest of the Irish's sports is location, as Notre Dame has a strong East Coast affiliation and regularly recruits that area for basketball, lacrosse and other sports.

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt. Just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. I think Joe Schmidt is going to be a very important piece for this defense, as Kelly called him the leader and Brian VanGorder said there is a significant knowledge gap between Schmidt and the rest of the linebackers. We all know about Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell, two guys who have the potential to be among the best at their respective positions nationally next season. But one guy I think could take a big step is Jarron Jones, who showed plenty of promise at the end of last season and was forthcoming this spring when discussing how much he enjoys playing in VanGorder's scheme.

Notre Dame spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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Three things we learned in the spring
  • The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
  • Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
  • The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
Three questions for the fall
  • Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
  • Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
  • Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
One way-too-early prediction

Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.

New spring, new spots for some on Irish D

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This week marked the first unofficial "off" week for John Turner. The redshirt sophomore's workload essentially doubled this spring, with the former safety learning a new position as a linebacker, a chore that would have been complicated enough had Notre Dame's defense not been undergoing a massive face-lift under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

"After practice I usually go watch film with [outside linebackers] coach [Bob] Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring," Turner said. "Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

Turner is hardly alone, as he is one of three notable players switching positions on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has become somewhat of a haven for fresh starts and surprises for the Irish during Brian Kelly's tenure as head coach. James Onwualu went from safety to linebacker this spring after playing wide receiver as a freshman last season. And Matthias Farley moved from safety to cornerback; he arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a receiver.

Turner, who played cornerback while at Indianapolis Cathedral High, said the move from the secondary to linebacker this time around has been a far more difficult one, though the spring served as a nice transition period.

[+] EnlargeJohn Turner
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJohn Turner is one of several underclassmen making a position switch for the Notre Dame defense.
"It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do," Turner said, adding that, toward the end of spring, "it's been starting to click a lot. Just knowing the defense and just being able to pretty much line up and do everything I need to for the most part."

Turner, who mostly played on special teams, is one of several underclassmen competing for potential starting roles on a retooled unit. Turner is getting practice time mostly in the Sam linebacker role in VanGorder's base defense. The circumstances are a bit different for Onwualu, if only because he earned meaningful action as a rookie last year, catching two passes for 34 yards.

Still, the 215-pound Onwualu's blend of size and athleticism made him an enticing prospect on the other side of the ball, with the sophomore starting this spring listed as a safety before being brought down into the box. He's mostly playing at the Sam position as well.

"Obviously the linemen are a little bit bigger, so you've got to learn how to beat them in different ways, and I'm trying to learn that every day with my technique and everything," said Onwualu, who played corner and safety at Cretin-Derham Hall (Minn.) High. "But I think that's really the only thing. My strength is up there with a lot of people, so I believe I can play in the box."

The moves are hardly unique to the Irish, as the position switches have become as much of a staple under Kelly as anything else. Four players who started in the secondary last year, for instance, had arrived to Notre Dame as receivers: Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

VanGorder initiated this spring's moves shortly after his arrival, with the former New York Jets linebackers coach evaluating film and engaging in a series of conversations with both Kelly and the players.

"That evaluation started with film first, and then some training with them, watching them move around and all," VanGorder said. "But until you put the football down and put your cleats in the grass, there's a lot of ways to complete the evaluation. Now we're seeing them play the game of football, so there's some things we didn't have now that we've got to continue to evaluate. And then, in the end of this picture and the spring, we pretty much can define and profile a player in terms of who he is."

The returns from spring have been positive as the Irish search for unconventional ways to find playmakers among a relatively green group.

"I love him, I really do. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very honest and upfront about everything," Farley said of VanGorder. "You can talk to him about anything. He's personable, and that clicked from the start and I think everyone really feels that, and it's going to be really good for everyone moving forward."

Video: KeiVarae Russell on Irish's new D

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
8:00
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Chris Low talks with Fighting Irish CB KeiVarae Russell about a new style of defense and the expectations for Notre Dame this season.

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
9:00
AM CT
Thanks for chiming in. As always, feel free to tweet any more questions you have here or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Away we go ...

Brendan Shaw from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Hi Matt, doing a great job as usual! This is a long shot, but is there any chance Kelly puts in a two-QB package to mess with the opposing defense? If you think about it, having two dual-threat QBs on the field simultaneously gives you a minimum of a quadruple threat in the backfield. Opposing d-coordinators may just quit football after trying to figure that out for a quarter or two. Regards, Brendan.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Brendan. Having both quarterbacks on the field at the same time? That would be news to me, especially since I haven't seen either of these guys try their hands at something other than quarterback. That being said, I'd be surprised if Malik Zaire didn't see some meaningful action during the season, as I am sure Brian Kelly and the staff will do everything they can to keep him engaged. He seems to have another gear as a runner, and he could certainly be useful in some red-zone packages as well, as the Fighting Irish have struggled to punch it in down there so much in recent years. I wonder if throwing a lefty in in the middle of a game could prove to be a nice little wrinkle, too.

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always. Question: how is the schedule for ACC games determined each year? We know it's a rotation with up to five games, but how are the opponents determined each season and how are home-and-aways done?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mike. It is, by all accounts, a collaborative effort. And the ACC has shown some flexibility so far to accommodate the Irish, allowing them to play four conference games in 2014 and six in 2015 because of previous schedule arrangements. Both parties plan on keeping things that way, hoping to blend a balance so that a) Notre Dame isn't facing a death row of Florida State/Clemson/Miami in a given season (just using those teams as an example) b) the Irish can fill their 6-5-1 scheduling arrangement (six at home, five on road, one Shamrock Series) and c) so that they play all 14 ACC teams over a three-year span. As you can see, it takes a lot of legwork from all sides, which explains why we didn't know the Irish's 2014 schedule until December of this year (and why the school released three years of schedules at once).

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt, I have 3 questions for you: 1. Since he arrived on campus last year, und.com has made a point of showing spectacular catches from No. 88. Having seen some live practice, can you comment on how he is doing overall in terms of route-running and consistency in catching the ball? Right now, he is presented as a catch-everything kind of guy 2. Footage of Zaire looks great but, coming back to the theme of No. 1, what kind of a QB competition would this be if Brian Kelly had not called it already in Golson's favor? Would it be close or are we talking different stratospheres? 3. Defense -- just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. Corey Robinson seems to dominate every time us media folks are at practice, too. He has natural size and athletic ability, giving the quarterback a wider margin of error when matching up with smaller corners. Part of that, of course, is also because Notre Dame's corners are relatively green outside of KeiVarae Russell. That said, Robinson needs to put on more strength so he can win some battles along the line of scrimmage and gain some more separation downfield. But last spring's transfers, and this spring's absence of DaVaris Daniels, has given Robinson more opportunities to make an impression. Kelly has stated that he absolutely loves coaching him because of his willingness to accept coaching and not make the same mistake twice. As for the quarterback question, I'm not sure it's still close, but that shouldn't negate from the progress that Zaire has made this spring.

I don't think anyone seriously expects someone other than Everett Golson to be starting come Week 1, but I do think Zaire will see meaningful snaps this season, and the fact there are only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring will prove to be beneficial for the lefty in the long run. Kelly was right to publicly open things up.

Lastly, everyone has been raving about Sheldon Day, who is not exactly off the radar but who was limited last season because of an ankle injury. I'd expect to see a breakout campaign from him along the line, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jarron Jones took his game up another level as well, as the redshirt sophomore has said to us how much more fun he is having in the new system.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill. writes: Hey Matt! Thanks for answering all of these questions. I know I enjoy reading your answers. My question today is focused on the linebackers. It seems like they are set at outside, but who's going to play middle? Will Nyles Morgan come in and make an impact right away? Could they move Jaylon Smith? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I'd say the only sure things at linebacker across the board right now are Joe Schmidt and Smith. Brian VanGorder absolutely raved about Schmidt when asked last week, and we all know what kind of potential Smith flashed during his strong rookie campaign in 2013. Smith has described his position as sort of a hybrid between the Mike and Sam. I'm curious to see the fallout of Jarrett Grace's second operation. He seemed to come along better than anyone over the first half of last season before breaking his leg, and Kelly said the Irish won't know his exact prognosis now until about six weeks after the operation, which took place March 28. If he can come back to camp in full-force, I think that will be huge. If not, I think Morgan could certainly make an impact upon his arrival this summer, probably not unlike the one we saw last year from Smith before he started every game in the fall.

Irish lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
11:00
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Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

VanGorder knows D won't click overnight

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It would probably be easier to list the players Brian VanGorder wasn't asked about Wednesday during his first spring meeting with the media. And though few of the guys he discussed outside of Joe Schmidt drew heavy praise of note, it is clear that Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator is a fan of all he has in front of him.

He just knows not everything is going to click overnight.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly, Brian VanGorder
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNew Fighting Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder (center) will coach a talented but young defense.
"There's a lot of mistakes out there right now, which is not unexpected," VanGorder said. "We get a lot of looks from our offense, and we're in the middle of installs, some players are getting a lot of looks being thrown at them right now. We're moving some guys around, trying to evaluate — it's an evaluation period for us, too. We're trying to find a comfort zone with respects to our players' ability and where he's going to fit best for us as we build our scheme. So a long ways to go, but I really like the players. Hard-working, they come ready each and every day. They're just a good group of players and mentally, they're fun to deal with. Good culture."

Being a veteran of 11 other college and pro stops has helped VanGorder fine-tune the installation blueprint, and he joked that he didn't know what the word "resistance" meant when asked if there had been any from his players in the early going.

But combating the coach's experience is the more versatile offense that his unit is facing every day, along with the overall greenness of a group that features just five total scholarship players entering their final seasons of eligibility (Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Ishaq Williams).

"It's a little bit typical of some places that I've gone into," VanGorder said of the installation process, "but I guess the thing that probably stands out here is our youth, we're so young. Really young in the front seven especially. Young players. Again, so we've got to speed the process up and bring them along. That's the objective."

The 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate, meanwhile, will have to die another day, as VanGorder said he wants to be multiple and that the 4-3 base the Irish have often used through six spring practices is more a product of early installation. And he said there's no getting around the fact that it will be an uphill battle for some of the injured regulars (Jarrett Grace and Tony Springmann, among them) to become acclimated with the new system upon their expected full returns in August camp.

Still, the defensive differences from last year to this year have been enough for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to notice, beyond the predictably stout play from names such as Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell.

"I think our defensive line as a whole has gotten more aggressive with what they’re doing," Denbrock said. "They’re playing more into the gaps and playing more up the field. Those guys kind of flash on me. I think secondary wise, there’s probably five or six or seven guys I could say, ‘Wow, I like seeing that. I like what this guy is doing. This guy is challenging the heck out of my guys and making them work.’ From Max Redfield to Matthias Farley. You guys have had the chance to see a couple practices, but even the practices you guys haven’t seen, a lot of the characters remain the same. A lot of the guys that are kind of flashing at you in the practices you’ve gotten a chance to see are doing that day in and day out and that’s obviously a tremendous thing for our football team."

Notes: VanGorder joked that his son, prep quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, joining the Irish as a preferred walk-on this summer is "great for Notre Dame." Asked if he wishes he could coach him, VanGorder said: "I learned a long time ago with my five kids, don’t coach them. They’re all athletes. It didn’t work well so I kind of backed off. Gave them things here and there but kind of let their coaches coach them and let me be dad." ... Asked for his philosophy of man coverage and pressing at the line of scrimmage, VanGorder said: "I’d love to do that. I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach."

Smith growing up fast for Irish

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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Jaylon Smith jokes that he's 19-going-on-30, the whirlwind of a rapid rise up the depth chart and standout rookie campaign giving way now to the burden of being a bedrock on a Notre Dame defense short on upperclassmen but not potential.

Then the realization that Smith has upward of three more years in an Irish uniform washes over him, and the 6-foot-2.5, 230-pounder can't help but sound as eager as all who anointed him a can't-miss talent upon his pledge not even two years ago.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmNotre Dame's Jaylon Smith showcased his potential as a freshman and should only get better this fall.
"Taking it day by day, trying to get better," Smith said of balancing the conflicting emotions. "That's really just the motto, not only for me but for us as a unit. We have to count on each other and hold each other accountable. I feel like the way we all approach the game, and improve, we're going to do anything [we can] to make us better."

Change is upon the Notre Dame defense, which has a new coordinator and, as of right now, significantly different strengths from its last time around.

Brian VanGorder is in for Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator, the secondary has replaced the defensive line as the known quantity and Smith, last seen tallying 67 tackles in the months following his arrival to campus, is now being relied upon more than ever, ready to show that the promise displayed last season was just a sliver of what's to come.

The former five-star recruit has moved from the dog outside linebacker spot to a position he describes as "Sam linebacker-slash-Mike," an integral piece to a defense that he says is now "definitely a 4-3."

"We don't want offenses to know where he is," head coach Brian Kelly said. "We're going to play him in a number of different positions. He could be inside, outside -- but we're moving him all over the place."

One of just two defensive returnees to start all 13 games last season (along with KeiVarae Russell), Smith's biggest challenge is expanding his football IQ, mastering not only his new position but also developing a better awareness of the responsibilities of the 10 others around him.

"That's always been a goal, that's how I view things," he said. "I'm wanting to potentially be the best and to be able to lead, and I think this year I'm going to get that chance, to take the next step up, of being more vocal in the locker room and being around the defense and learning the defense."

For all of his talent, Smith never forgets that his opportunity last summer to ascend from third to first on the depth chart came at the misfortune of Danny Spond, whose hemiplegic migraines forced the incumbent into early retirement during camp.

Smith was sure to make mention of his newest mentor at every turn last season, and the absence of Spond around the team this spring has not let Smith off the hook so easily.

From Spond to Smith, from Carlo Calabrese to Joe Schmidt, linebackers old and new have made sure to keep the conversation going through a group text message they started at the break of camp last August, back in Marion, Ind.

"Basically all the linebackers from last year," Smith said. "We speak almost every day, to be honest. Everyone's just seeing new information and those guys are old and moving on and actually getting ready to live life, and a couple of us are still here, grinding, just trying to have success for Notre Dame."

Still here -- sounding like anything but a guy going through his first college spring, and hoping to play like that's the case, too.

"I feel like I'm more experienced, I feel like I've been here forever," Smith said. "Time goes by so fast. I'm cherishing every moment of it."

Kelly optimistic about 2014 Irish defense

December, 30, 2013
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NEW YORK -- As the Notre Dame football team prepares to replace several key defensive starters and install a new defensive coordinator this offseason, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's words about filling those voids stand out to sophomore corner KeiVarae Russell.

"He [said it's] like it's baking the cake. Instead of putting the sugar you put the spice in," Russell said. "It's still going to turn out to be a cake. It's going to be a different taste of it."

Notre Dame's players and coach are expecting that cake will taste quite good next season.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IINotre Dame could lose defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt to the 2014 NFL draft.
As Notre Dame readies to bring in a new defensive coordinator and potentially replace six starters from Saturday's 29-16 win over Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y., the Fighting Irish are optimistic they won't miss a beat defensively next season.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the team has its new defensive coordinator in place, reported to be Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder, and an announcement will be coming soon as the contract had not been finalized as of Saturday. VanGorder will replace Diaco, who left prior to the bowl game to become the head coach at UConn.

"We're going to have a lot of really good players coming back, I feel really confident in that," Kelly said. "[I'm] really excited about the prospects next year defensively in the guys we got coming back."

Notre Dame's defense shined against Rutgers, forcing four interceptions and holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 total yards. More than half of the starters from that game, though, might not be back next season. Defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, and cornerback Bennett Jackson all started their final game for Notre Dame.

Junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt also started against Rutgers and could skip his final season and declare for the draft. If he does, he will join senior defensive tackle Louis Nix III, who did not play against Rutgers after undergoing season-ending surgery but signed with an agent to forgo his final year of eligibility.

"He'll now focus on making that decision. We've had a couple of conversations. He knows all the information," Kelly said of Tuitt. "My job is to provide him with all the information about the decisions that he's about to make. I'm pretty certain he'll make his decision here very, very soon."

As he looks to next season, Kelly likes the core group of defensive players, and believes the team will benefit if it's able to achieve more continuity. Notre Dame started 19 different players on defense this year, as freshman safety Max Redfield made his first career start in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Kelly specifically mentioned Russell, who had an interception against Rutgers, and sophomore linebacker Jarron Jones as two players the defense can build around next season. Russell is confident he can be a major player for the new defensive coordinator and be a cornerstone for the defense next season.

"I personally believe I'm going to be the best corner next year in the country," Russell said. "This game shows me the development I had from the start of last year and from the beginning of the year to where I've progressed. My man-to-man skills have gotten a lot better throughout the year. Sky's the limit for me. This shows I can really be the best corner in the country, it just takes a lot of work to do that, and this offseason I'm going to work on all my assets."

Instant Analysis: Notre Dame 29, Rutgers 16

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
4:04
PM CT


Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.

Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.

Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).

Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)

What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.

What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.

To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.

Video: CB Russell talks BYU

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
3:54
PM CT
Notre Dame sophomore KeiVarae Russell talks with Matt Fortuna about preparing for Taysom Hill and the rest of the BYU offensive attack.

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