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Russell relishes more responsibility

8/8/2014

CULVER, Ind. -- The day KeiVarae Russell committed to Notre Dame, the Irish lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Rashad Greene was named MVP of the contest, catching five passes for 99 yards and a touchdown.

"That day was funny," Russell said. "Everybody thought I did it on purpose. I didn't know they were playing. U-Dub [Washington] was playing that day, too."

 And yet, the Everett, Wash., product was an expected running back or receiver upon his commitment.

"I know," Russell said with a smile. "I didn't think I was going to be corner, but I'm enjoying it now."

That he is, with the junior entering 2014 as confident and talkative as ever as he looks to take advantage of more 1-on-1 matchups that will exploit his speed. Russell has started all 26 games of his college career through two seasons, having been thrown into an emergency corner role during fall camp of 2012 after then-projected starter Lo Wood tore his Achilles tendon. Now he is on watch lists such as the Bednarik and Nagurski, which honor the nation's top defensive players.

And yet he's not on the watch list for the Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back.

"It doesn’t make sense," he said. "I always look at stuff like that because it’s so funny. I can’t wait. I’m excited. Another chip on my shoulder, a reason to work harder and show the guys I can be one of the best corners in the country. I have work to do, and I’m excited."

Russell is hoping the switch from zone coverage under Bob Diaco to more press coverage under new coordinator Brian VanGorder will only grant him more opportunities to build off his three career interceptions and 10 career pass breakups. The aggressive style should, in theory, provide a boost to Russell and the rest of an experienced secondary, which is playing behind a relatively green front-seven.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder admitted that the new concept was somewhat tiring at first during fall practice No. 1 Monday, joking that he probably dropped 10 pounds running around in the heat. But he simplified the approach, allowing himself to get into a groove and, in true Russell fashion, become a pest in the receivers' sides.

"I have to get to that point where my technique is flawless," Russell said. "When people go against me they’d be like, ‘Oh damn, him again?’ Perfecting every part of my game. Not just press-man, but off-man, when they’re in bunches, I have to play off. With a three-way bunch I have to be able to play man-to-man that way, just perfecting my game."

Brian Kelly sees Russell taking on the challenge of trying to be among the best in the country, with the fifth-year Irish coach throwing out names like NFL stars Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson when discussing what his junior corner is aiming to be like.

"He wants to be the very best at his position, so he's driven to be that player," Kelly said. "He's not there yet, so that's his focus."

Russell, for his part, has already done some scouting of upcoming receivers he will likely find himself up against later this season, drawing analogies with his teammates each time he faces them in practice.

"I studied that little slot from North Carolina, I studied him," Russell said of the speedy Ryan Switzer. "I studied [USC's Nelson] Agholor, I still look at those guys now, and I studied Rice receivers. But they're all different body receivers."

To Russell, teammate Chris Brown is like Agholor. Corey Robinson is like Arizona State's Jaelen Strong. Short and fast, tall and strong, Russell is ready to take on all comers this season.

Florida State's Greene may be on the docket again this Oct. 18 as well, but Russell is more concerned with the bigger picture from that night he committed to Notre Dame nearly three years ago.

"We ain't going to be in the Champs Sports Bowl," he said with a smile.