NCF Nation: KeiVarae Russell

Kelly: No update on suspended five

September, 11, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The waiting game continues for No. 11 Notre Dame as it approaches its third game of the season still without answers regarding the five players being held out amid an internal academic investigation.

Coach Brian Kelly said Thursday that he still has not been updated on the status of the suspended players since he last shared information on the matter with reporters. Whether he was referring to his comments on Sept. 4 that none of the players had been through honesty committee hearings yet is unclear. What remains clear, though, is that Kelly and the Irish would welcome the players back for Saturday night's game against Purdue if they were cleared Friday.

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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsDaVaris Daniels and four other Notre Dame players remain suspended as an academic investigation continues.
"We'd get them down there as quickly as we could and welcome them and put them in the uniform," Kelly said, two days before the Irish face the Boilermakers in Indianapolis. "Whether we could get them to know what we're doing offensively, defensively and special teams, who knows about that? But they would certainly be welcomed as part of our football team."

Kelly reiterated that he does not know much about the process that has been going on for nearly a month now, after the school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete, meaning only hearings and potential appeals remained.

The players attend classes and have been welcomed back in the football complex, eating with teammates and working out with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, though Kelly has chosen to hold them out of team meetings.

The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.

Kelly said Thursday that he is anxious, that the players are anxious and that reporters are anxious, but that he does not know much, choosing to let the academic arm of the school conduct matters as it sees fit.

"This is separation from church and state in the sense," Kelly said. "This is the deans and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play-calling and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back but I get it, and they work and that's their job and so I really don't have any say on it."

Notes: Kelly said that former Irish and NFL player and current graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy has not missed a day of practice despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The NCAA allowed the school to hire former player Pat Eilers as a GA in light of the matter, but Kelly said Eilers cannot coach a unit during practice while McCarthy is still there.

"Incredible," Kelly said of McCarthy. "His resolve and his [desire] to be out at practice, just [a] pretty inspirational young man. It's been awesome to be around him and to get to know him even more, it doesn't surprise me why he's been such a favorite around here. He's a pretty inspirational kid."

Kelly also said Torii Hunter Jr. (Grade 3 groin tear) will not play Saturday despite showing progress throughout the week.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

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AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe

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.

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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."


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.

ND trip to Stanford sparks familiarity

November, 27, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- KeiVarae Russell is a two-year starter at cornerback. By the time he turns 40, he says, he wants to spend a year living in London. He would like to have a poem published by then, too. He was the lead in a school play this past spring, and he is currently taking an acting class.

[+] EnlargeKeiVarae Russell
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsActor-poet-cornerback KeiVarae Russell is one of the players who exemplifies the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry.
"I'm a creative guy," Russell said. "I love being known for more than just football."

He is what Brian Kelly calls a gentleman off the field and a tough guy on it, distinctions that will hardly be unique when the sophomore takes the field Saturday night for No. 25 Notre Dame in its regular-season finale at No. 8 Stanford.

The Cardinal are among the three teams the Irish have chosen to keep on their schedule annually moving forward. In a season that has seen Kelly discredit the tension with Michigan, the nation's winningest program, it was more than a little noteworthy to hear the coach call the game with Stanford a "great rivalry" Tuesday.

"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Kelly said.

Last year's meeting was the first between schools ranked in the top 20 of both the football polls and the U.S. News & World Report's best colleges list.

This year Kelly is tasked with taking his operation almost 2,000 miles away on Black Friday, a considerably lighter chore given that the schools had once eyed a destination for this contest some 7,000 miles away: China.

The terrain this weekend in Stanford Stadium will nonetheless be familiar for many visitors, Jack Swarbrick among them. The Irish athletic director has trouble hiding his enthusiasm when talking about this matchup, as he received his Bachelor's in economics from Notre Dame before moving on to Stanford Law.

"There are obvious similarities," Swarbrick said. "Private [schools], among the smallest undergraduate populations in the FBS, excellent academic reputations, a broad commitment to collegiate sports model as reflected in number of sports and levels of success, passionate alumni scattered around the globe and very strong brands.

"Relative to football, the clear commonality is an insistence that the members of our teams be fully integrated into the university in the same manner other students are. They are truly student athletes. This is reflected in both graduation rates and the success of our student-athletes after football is over."

Swarbrick has company on both sides. College Football Playoff selection committee member Condoleezza Rice earned her master's from Notre Dame and is a professor at Stanford. Cardinal coach David Shaw has enlisted the assistance of the former Secretary of State in hosting recruits -- one of whom, TJ Jones, initially committed to Stanford but is now an Irish captain. (Rice has been no stranger at Notre Dame Stadium herself.)

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Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesStanford QB Kevin Hogan says he has several family member who went to Notre Dame.
Tyrone Willingham was head coach at both schools. Irish receivers coach Mike Denbrock came from the Cardinal. Then there is Bernard Muir, whose rise to Stanford athletic director included a five-year stint working at Notre Dame for Kevin White, who says Muir "represents the wonderful future of college athletics in every way possible."

Muir's new employer attracted headlines this summer when the Cardinal sold out of season tickets for the first time, underscoring the cat-and-mouse relationship between these two programs.

Notre Dame has sold out all but one home game since 1966, but it is Stanford that will make its fourth-straight BCS bowl with a win in next week's Pac-12 title game.

The Cardinal are quarterbacked by Kevin Hogan, who estimates he has 10-20 cousins and another five or six aunts and uncles who went to Notre Dame. Protecting Hogan is right guard Kevin Danser, whose uncle, John Gallagher, played hoops for the Irish and roomed with Joe Theismann. Reserve center Conor McFadden, whose photographic memory has become the source of attention that seemingly only the Cardinal or Irish could attract, has a grandfather and several uncles who went to Notre Dame as well.

"It's a fun game because you have the connections, family connections, and we all want to win it," Hogan said.

On Tuesday, Kelly fielded a question here about playing "Notre Dame football," sparking a response about how he does not want personalities like Russell's to be marginalized as just football players.

A few hours later in Silicon Valley, Shaw began his press conference by announcing that Stanford had won another off-the-field honor, this time its second straight AFCA Academic Achievement Award. The Cardinal coach then spent the next few minutes talking about how this would help in recruiting.

It only happened to be Notre Dame week.

"We understand how to manage your time so that you do well in school and you do well in football and you have a social life and you enjoy yourself here, that it is possible for all three of those," Shaw said. "When we graduate our guys and we play really good in football and they come to visit, our guys love it here. That helps a lot."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Next-man-in might just be Brian Kelly's favorite mantra, and it may have become the defining one of the coach's Notre Dame tenure after the number of surprises that ended up lifting the Irish to an undefeated regular season in 2012.

As the spring departures of sophomore receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson present another test, Kelly could have the very guy to fill at least the dual roles formerly occupied by Neal in both the slot and as a punt returner.

And yes, like unsung starters KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley before him, former safety C.J. Prosise is a convert to the other side of the ball as well, this after redshirting during his first year this past fall.

"C.J. Prosise is doing a great job," Kelly said when asked about his receiving options inside. "Really excited about C.J. You’ll see a lot of him in the spring, you’ll see what I mean. He’s been a very pleasant surprise -- that’s probably the wrong word. He’s been what we thought he could be; he’s just done it a lot quicker than we thought. And again, you’re talking about a slot receiver who's 210 pounds. Nice hands, got deceptive speed, can pull away. And then in terms of the run game, we’ve got a big guy that can do some nice things."

Amir Carslisle, who is expected to miss the next four weeks following a broken collarbone, will be another option upon his return as well.

Kelly mentioned Prosise and TJ Jones as possible punt returners as he looks to re-tool a unit that has finished 100th or worse nationally in each of his first three seasons coaching the Irish.

With another shoulder injury forcing Chase Hounshell to miss a second consecutive season, Kelly said promising Cat linebacker Ishaq Williams has started cross-training at defensive end.

"We can get him 15-20 more reps, and he's all for that," Kelly said. "So he’ll still get his Cat work and he’ll play some defensive end as well. Was really impressed with him. We put him in there on Saturday for the first time without any coaching, and he did some really nice things for us. Had another very good day today, and I promised him a visor if he continues to do that."

Video: Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell

January, 5, 2013
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Chris Low discusses the BCS title game with Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

Russell catches on quickly for Irish

December, 13, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yolanda Phillips often had to remind the second of her two kids, KeiVarae Russell, of who the parent was in their family. And despite having another son, Keith -- who is four years older than KeiVarare -- Phillips and the rest of the family couldn't help but refer to her second-born as "Little Man" ever since he was an infant.

"He's always been outgoing," Phillips said. "He's always been something else. Wherever we go, he's always going to talk to everybody, always holding me up. He's always been an outgoing person."

Little Man has grown up fast in six short months at Notre Dame, going from running back recruit to emergency starting cornerback following Lo Wood's camp Achilles tear, and emerging as an integral piece for the nation's No. 1 scoring defense along the way.

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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCornerback KeiVarae Russell has adjusted to life as a starter quickly for Notre Dame.
Russell's tests have come big and small with the Irish, from a blown assignment in a season-opening rout of Navy to challenging the acclaimed aerial attacks of Oklahoma and USC in primetime road contests.

Asked if he still felt like a freshman, the fast-talking, always-smiling Russell quipped: "I wasn't a freshman after the first game, what you mean?"

Russell starred at cornerback for Mariner (Wash.) as a prep junior and cameoed at safety as a senior, though running the ball was his forte. Upon arriving to Notre Dame, his late-summer switch to the other side of the ball surprised all but one person.

"When he got to high school he wanted to step away and play offense," said his grandfather, Sylvester Phillips, every bit as gregarious as Russell. "I'd always tell him: 'Man, you need to be on defense!' So when he went to Notre Dame and the coaches saw the same thing I saw, that he could be on defense, we just laughed about it."

Phillips' first game came Sept. 22 against Michigan, his birthday weekend. Russell made the trip worthwhile by recording his first career interception. Just three weeks earlier, Russell had been reeling a bit after surrendering the first opponent touchdown of the season, in Dublin.

Cornerback Bennett Jackson, captain Manti Te'o and position coach Kerry Cooks laughed at him afterward, telling the rookie, in plain terms, to pick his head up and get over it. He blitzed on, acting instead of thinking, a formula that had served him well as a prep student.

Then, Russell did everything from starring for coach John Ondriezek's team on the field to ascending to student-council president and dining with special-needs students off it.

"One of my first comments to him as a ninth-grader was that you're a person that will make a difference in others' lives -- you have that ability, you have those opportunities," Ondriezek recalled telling Russell. "And there are a lot of people that have that opportunity to be successful, but they never are because they don't possess that drive and commitment and desire to succeed that he has."

For Martin Luther King Day during his senior year, Russell was invited to nearby Voyager Middle School as its featured guest speaker.

He told Ondriezek that he was nervous. Coach told the senior to treat the occasion like another game. By the time it ended, Russell was receiving a standing ovation from his younger peers.

"Once he gets started, once that first word comes out, he speaks so well, so fluent," Phillips, his grandfather, said. "He listens. He answers the questions and says what he wants to say. Even every game, he'll tell you he's nervous, he's got jitterbugs and everything. But once the game starts, it's over."

Russell is more to the point: It is arrogance, and it is a necessity at defensive back, freshman or not.

His message during the regular-season finale against USC's dynamic duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods illustrates that.

"I looked to both of them in the eyes and said: 'I'm going to beat you guys. I don't care if you're ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country,' " Russell said.

"I had to grow up real soon, real quick, and I learned that," he said. "You can't use the excuse of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. … When I first got here I was making excuses. Like during camp, I was like: OK, this is my first year. But I grew out of that real soon.

"I was like: They offered me a scholarship for a reason. I was one of the best in the country, so I've got to show why."

2012 Notre Dame regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
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Where do we begin? The spring, when a freshman All-America transferred to South Florida? Right after the Blue and Gold game, when the incumbent starting quarterback and a starting linebacker were arrested at an off-campus party?

How about fall camp, when one of two inexperienced starting corners ruptured his Achilles, months after a contributing safety underwent shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him this season?

Notre Dame entered the 2012 season with questions under center, with very little experience in the secondary -- and even less when Jamoris Slaughter went down for the season Week 3 at Michigan State -- and with a schedule on deck that, on the surface, seemed as challenging as any in recent memory.

Twelve games later, the Irish stand undefeated and No. 1 in the country, awaiting their Jan. 7 date with defending champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Brian Kelly has already worked his best job to date in a 22-year career that features championships at every level at which he has been a head coach.

The offense is led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who is only just beginning to realize his potential. The defense is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist who is as strong of a leader this program has had in decades, and its coordinator is one of the hottest names in coaching circles after the Irish led the nation in scoring defense.

That third-year coaching stigma around Notre Dame, the idea that something special happens in every strong leader's third year, from Frank Leahy to Dan Devine to Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz? Maybe there is something to that, as Kelly has the Irish on the doorstep of a national title after consecutive 8-5 seasons.

Notre Dame entered the season unranked. It had dates with three top-10 teams, and five top-25 teams, with three coming on the road.

The Irish dealt No. 10 Michigan State its first blow of many this season. They turned the tables on Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan, a reversal of recent years. They beat No. 17 Stanford with a goal-line stand, a stark contrast in physicality between the two teams from past meetings. They won at No. 8 Oklahoma, and they won three games after that, setting up a showdown with their archrival.

USC entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, with many of us viewing the teams' regular-season finale as a chance for the Irish to maybe play spoiler against the Trojans.

The Irish instead entered that finale as the nation's No. 1 team, with the Trojans unranked. Notre Dame won, delivering USC its fifth loss of the season.

How wrong we all were.

Offensive MVP: Tough choice, but I'll go with Theo Riddick. The senior has played all over the field during his career before finally settling into the hybrid role of running back and slot receiver. He established himself as the Irish's No. 1 back while Cierre Wood was suspended during the season's first two games, and he leads the team with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while adding 35 catches for 364 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Eifert is the bigger name and will be a high-round draft pick, but his numbers became a casualty of an offense that was still developing early in the season.

[+] EnlargeTheo Riddick
Harry How/Getty ImagesTheo Riddick found his groove as a combination running back/slot receiver for the Irish.
Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o is the obvious choice here, as he is one of three Heisman Trophy finalists and leads the team with 103 tackles, seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He deserves all of the credit he gets, but let's not overlook the efforts of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front, too. Nix might be one of the most underrated players in the country -- as inside linemen usually are -- while Tuitt made many forget about Aaron Lynch by recording 12 sacks this season.

Newcomer of the year: KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back, and he didn't get to campus until June. Then projected starting cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp, and Russell surged to the top of the depth chart at corner, before making an impact in his first season. He played outstanding on a big stage at Oklahoma and has made many forget that he is a first-year player.

Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you thought, after four weeks and two yankings, that Everett Golson would be leading an undefeated Irish team at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt freshman quarterback's rise has been perhaps the biggest development for this Irish offense, as he has steadily grown while the playbook has steadily opened. He has become a bigger threat with his legs, has handled the bright lights well and, best of all for Notre Dame, has upward of 40 remaining college starts.

Biggest disappointment: We're getting picky here with a 12-0 team that is ranked first in the country, but there is room for improvement. How about the punt-return game, which, while not losing Irish yards the way it often did last year, has never really gotten going under true freshman Davonte' Neal, with the Irish ranking 115th nationally in punt returns, averaging 2.44 yards per return. Red zone offense, ranked 75th nationally, has room for improvement as well.

Best game: The end of the Stanford game, on Oct. 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, was out of a movie scene. Heavy rain, power against power, deafening roars from the home fans. Football at its purest element was on display, with the Irish winning their sixth game with a goal-line stand against a Cardinal team that had simply outmuscled Notre Dame in recent matchups.
Devin Street is coming off a career best 140-yard receiving day in Pitt's 47-17 rout Saturday against Temple. The redshirt junior has team bests this season of 50 catches, 695 yards and four touchdowns.

Street brings the Panthers into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with the chance to knock off the nation's No. 3 team. Here, he talks about that opportunity, along with what has been working so well lately for Pitt's offense.

Note: Street spoke with ESPN.com on Wednesday. On Thursday, he and two other teammates were charged with simple assault and conspiracy in connection with an incident last month. All three will play Saturday at Notre Dame.

Saturday was a career day for you numbers-wise. What was clicking for you and how do you try to build off that this weekend?

Devin Street: Just comfortable with the offense. Little concepts. Definitely our offensive line protecting Tino [Sunseri] and giving him time. We had a great scheme going into Temple and attacked some of the holes in their defense, and I think we were pretty successful in the passing game.

That's three out of four weeks now that you've had at least 100 receiving yards. Is this as good as you've felt in your career?

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AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAn inexperienced Pitt offense will be counting on receiver Devin Street for guidance in 2013.
DS: Yeah, I think so. I'm the most confident at this point. There's a lot of things thrown at me, different concepts, moving in the slot and everything like that. But the coaches are calling upon me and I just know in my mind I have to respond. But yeah, I'd say I definitely feel really comfortable right now.

When Tino Sunseri is playing the way he is, how much easier is it for you and everyone else?

DS: I think it is easier for everyone else. I think Tino's more confident in me, but he's also confident in the offense, which allows us to click. And he has targets to throw to, especially with Mike Shanahan, too, throwing to Ray [Graham] out of the backfield. I just think we're all really comfortable with the new system, and I think it's coming together.

Is that as good as the offense has performed? What's the next step this week?

DS: I think we definitely did some things well against Temple, but going back and watching the film I feel like we can improve on some things. I think we definitely are doing that this week, too, moving guys around to help, putting Mike at different spots and doing all different types of things. I think we can definitely do some different things, but at the same time I think we did a lot of things well against Temple.

It took longer than I imagine most fans and people outside the program probably wanted or imagined it would, but you guys are starting to click under a new coach right now. What has Paul Chryst done that has helped you guys ease into the flow and made the transition smooth?

DS: Just with any coach I think it's different coming in with a new concept. And going out there and playing it and seeing it during the game is going be hard to adjust. Things are coming along, coach Chryst has put an emphasis on the little things and concepts -- we just keep going over and going over. Concepts that we need to refine, to think, our go-tos. We don't have a bunch of plays but we have a lot of plays that we're getting good at, so I think he's just definitely harping on that.

Notre Dame's defense is one of the best country. What do you see in the secondary that makes them so effective?

DS: I think they're great athletic-wise. I think they have a great safety in Zeke Motta. He's a pretty good captain back there, doesn't let anything get behind him, can definitely come up and slow the run. I feel like their corners are definitely aggressive and athletic. I know they have a young corner [KeiVarae Russell], and he plays tremendously, like a veteran out there. I think they definitely do some things well. They're just a great group to complement their front three, who's tremendous.

What's the balance mentally for you guys as you go into a historic venue with the chance to ruin a team's national title hopes? How do you embrace that opportunity while sticking with the game plan?

DS: I think we had a taste of it going into Virginia Tech, so we kind of know what it's like. That was another big opportunity, ranked opponent. So I feel like we know what it's like. We're just going to go out here and prepare -- not get too high, not get too low, like we always do. Just go out against Notre Dame and give them all we got. We know we have to play assignment football and can't get outside our element and start doing anything we want. We know we have to stick to the gameplan and give it 110 percent against those guys.
Brian Kelly saw a different team post-victory Saturday night than the one he did a week earlier.

Such is the difference between a tight home win over BYU and a program-defining road triumph over a top-10 team.

"They were very excited about the win," Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference of a 30-13 win over No. 8 Oklahoma. "They felt really good about how they won the game. It wasn't a giddy group; it was a group that felt like they had earned the win and celebrated accordingly. And we got on the bus and we got on the plane and you could barely hear a pin drop. The guys were out sleeping. You know when you gauge a win how your team reacts, and I thought it was an appropriate reaction after the game."

One that coincided with the best performance of the three-year Kelly era.

"It was in the four areas that we've asked our kids to play this game, it was on point," Kelly said. "We wanted to be smart, disciplined, physically and mentally we wanted to be tougher than our opponent, and we hit all four of those. So as it relates to what the message was and what we wanted to accomplish, it hit all four points for us."

Specificifally, Kelly was pleased to see a number of young players step up in big spots, particularly Chris Brown, whose game-changing 50-yard catch in the fourth quarter set up the go-ahead score.

The reception was the first of Brown's career.

"Three true freshmen making an impact in Chris Brown, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell — I think the tackling of our secondary against a very skilled group," Kelly said of what stood out the most Saturday. "We were going to give them the ball in space and we were going to have to make tackles, and I was very, very impressed with a guy like KeiVarae Russell, who's a true freshman who moved over there just a couple months ago, the way he tackles in space. And then Elijah Shumate, a guy who again, is just a true freshman playing in a very big environment.

"The way they handled themselves in that kind of environment — I wouldn't say surprised me, but those are the things that we're talking about in terms of guys really impressing us."

Flu-ridden: Six players had a stomach flu during the week, but Gunner Kiel was not one of them. Kelly said he left the freshman quarterback home because the team had several administrators on its plane and had to make some tough travel decisions.

Clean bill of health: Bennett Jackson (shoulder) and Matthias Farley (hand) are both fine, Kelly said.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Matthias Farley didn't want to play high school football because he didn't want to fit in. A little more than three years after first taking to the game, he is in a new position for a unit that is undergoing its second makeover in the past month alone.

And yes, he fits right in.

What's one more converted offensive player in the starting backfield of a defense tied for eighth nationally in scoring? Following the loss of safety Jamoris Slaughter -- who had successful surgery Wednesday for his ruptured left Achilles tendon -- Notre Dame's first-team secondary is down to a grand total of one player, Zeke Motta, who has spent his entire college career on the defensive side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeMatthias Farley
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNotre Dame's Matthias Farley says he is comfortable at safety after converting from receiver.
"It's crazy to me to think about how it all started and how it all began," said Farley, a converted receiver who was dedicated to soccer until his junior year of high school. "But looking at it from this point of view now, I feel like I've been well-prepared, even though I haven't played that long and have the God-given ability to do the role I have to do.

"It's definitely crazy. I'm sure it's even crazier from the outside-in, but I'm real calm about the whole thing and just confident."

The last thing Farley wanted to do as the youngest of six was follow his brothers and sisters in football or basketball, but consecutive losing seasons on the pitch -- while his football-playing friends at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian made a pair of deep postseason runs, no less -- soured the prep sophomore's affinity for soccer.

So he gave in to coach Jason Estep's pleas to try football, struggling with being the guy whose technique was an early source of criticism before adapting to his roles as safety and receiver, his potential at the latter attracting the eyes of the Irish.

"Matthias is a quick learner," Motta said. "He's got that ability that's something special. I think to be able to pick things up quickly and apply it out on the field -- he hasn't really played football for too long ,but you can tell his athletic ability and everything like that is helping in his preparation, and his mental focus is right where he needs to be."

Farley became a full-time safety after not playing last season as a freshman, and he rose to the rotation quickly before falling into place following Slaughter's injury Saturday. Aided by crutches, the mentor walked off the Spartan Stadium field afterward with his protege, telling Farley that all these lessons weren't for nothing.

With cornerback Lo Wood (preseason Achilles injury) giving way to converted freshman running back KeiVarae Russell, who is starting alongside converted receiver Bennett Jackson, Farley is now the latest fresh face in a secondary that was pegged as a liability before the Irish's 3-0 start.

The newest member of that unit hopes to add to the surprises for a defense holding opponents to just 10 points per game.

"We never talk about it; everybody has settled into the roles they have," Farley said. "Maybe they didn't start, they didn't come in doing the roles they're doing, but everyone's been working real hard, and I feel like the fruit of everyone's labor is being seen as far as the play goes."

Notre Dame weekend rewind

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
10:02
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Here's one last look back at the weekend that was as Notre Dame improved to 3-0 with a convincing 20-3 win at Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Mike Carter/US PresswireCoach Brian Kelly has the Irish sitting at 3-0 this season and ranked No. 11 in the latest AP poll.
The good: Manti Te'o had a game-high 12 tackles. Stephon Tuitt notched his fifth sack of the season. The Irish defense kept Le'Veon Bell in check to the tune of 77 yards, and allowed MSU to cross midfield just once in the second half. (The Spartans also made zero red zone trips throughout the night.) You can't ask for much more from this unit, which propelled the Irish to their first 3-0 start in 10 years.

The bad: Everett Golson's first two (unofficial) plays in his first true road contest: False start, timeout. But what looked like it would be a long night was quickly turned around.

The ugly: Jamoris Slaughter ruptured his Achilles tendon on the first play of the second half and will miss the rest of the season. Matthias Farley is expected to step into his spot. The Irish have now suffered three season-ending injuries in the secondary -- Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Slaughter -- and three of their four starters are converted offensive players: KeiVarae Russell (running back), Bennett Jackson (wide receiver) and Farley (receiver).

Still healing: Brian Kelly said Sunday that Kapron Lewis-Moore and DaVaris Daniels were not fully healthy following injuries suffered one week earlier. Both played sparingly. Sheldon Day suffered a bone bruise as well, though Kelly said it happened before he was jumping up and down after a botched attempt at an interception. He should be fine.

Next up: Notre Dame's second home night game in as many years features Michigan, which has delivered the Irish three crushing last-minute defeats in the last three years. The man responsible for two of them, Denard Robinson, is back for his senior year, and the Irish would like nothing more than to go through him en route to a 4-0 September.
1. This ground game is good: And it's going to be even better when Cierre Wood returns. Of course, not every defense will be as easy to run on as Navy's was, but there are several valuable options -- don't forget about USC transfer Amir Carlisle, either -- that will help alleviate the pressure on Everett Golson.

2. Golson has poise: Yes, that's a vague, cliche term coaches and writers alike love to throw around. But give the redshirt freshman credit: First start, overseas, the pressure of playing quarterback for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly -- and he was never rattled. Golson was an efficient game manager, which was more than enough against the Midshipmen.

3. There may be a punt-return game: Notre Dame averaged 3.7 yards per punt return in 2011 -- and that was after Michael Floyd's 41-yard return in the Champs Sports Bowl. Davonte Neal returned one punt 11 yards. Earth-shattering? No. But after last season's opening-week fiasco, it's enough reason to think this could be a source of production for the Irish, with the true freshman leading the charge.

4. Freshmen will contribute: Neal had the punt return (and a negative-5-yard catch), Justin Ferguson had a 9-yard reception. Ferguson, Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti were special teams regulars. KeiVarae Russell became Notre Dame's first true freshman starting corner. Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day saw some time. And even Ronnie Stanley played with the second-team line, a rarity for a freshman offensive lineman.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tapping into the archives to learn more about the shoes he needed to fill, Bennett Jackson instead learned more about his own progress.

While watching film this week of former Notre Dame cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, Jackson stumbled across a few clips of himself featuring sloppy play and weak technique. He didn't like what he saw, and he didn't recognize it, either.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Bennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesBennett Jackson has become the elder statesman of Notre Dame cornerbacks.
"I didn't really know what I was doing, I was just kind of just running around," Jackson said of his younger self. "But then I look to myself now and just see the change. So that's a confidence booster for sure."

It all re-affirmed for the junior just how far he has come since switching from wide receiver to corner two years ago. And with Lo Wood's season-ending Achilles injury Monday, Jackson knows the margin for error is slim, as his nearly two years of experience and limited reserve action at the position has forced him into the role of elder statesman for a unit re-tooling on the fly.

"Me and Lo, we tried to lead by example on the field," Jackson said. "But with Lo out, obviously me being the older cornerback, I kind of have to take charge. I took charge before, but now it's more on my shoulders I feel. All the younger guys are working, we're all a great unit. We have great chemistry and I want the best for the guy who's going to be next to me, for sure, all the guys."

Jalen Brown, Josh Atkinson or KeiVarae Russell will likely be that guy next to Jackson come Sept. 1, with Russell providing the most interesting rise through camp so far.

Recruited as a running back out of Mariner (Wash.) High School, Russell arrived on campus this June and made the switch to corner, where the Irish were already down one big prospect following the spring departure of early-enrollee Tee Shepard.

No stranger to switching sides of the ball himself, Jackson has been impressed by Russell's quick adjustment from taking the hits to delivering them.

"Everybody's surprised," Jackson said of Russell. "Everyone's happy with how he's coming along. He's adapting to it really fast for sure, but he's got a great group of guys around him. Everybody's helping him. He's a really smart kid. I'm surprised he caught on to it that fast. He's doing a great job."

With one fateful misstep Monday -- teammates saw Wood stumble and walk off the field, figuring he had rolled an ankle -- the learning curve has been accelerated for Russell and the rest of the healthy cornerbacks, none of whom have seen more than marginal playing time in the secondary.

"You're young, you're inexperienced, but you're excited," safety Matthias Farley said of his defensive backfield-mates. "Because you want to get in the game, you want to prove you can make an impact at whatever position you're in, contribute to the team. And I would say across the board everyone is in high spirits and fully confident that they can do the tasks that are assigned out for that position, whatever it may be."

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