Notre Dame Football: John Ondriezek

Russell catches on quickly for Irish

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
6:30
PM ET
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.

[+] EnlargeKeiVarae Russell
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."

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