‘A Different Kind of Fire’: KeiVarae Russell
Alex Carson | Friday, November 6, 2015
A year ago, Notre Dame was 7-1, in the midst of the playoff discussion, with a series of November games ahead that would define its season.
While the Irish find themselves in effectively the same situation this year, KeiVarae Russell, who spent last season suspended following an Honor Code violation, doesn’t.
“I broke down. It was tough,” the senior cornerback said about the moment he learned he wouldn’t play last year. “It was really tough for me to find out that I wasn’t going to play an entire season last year.”
But of the so-called “Frozen Five,” Russell is the only one back in South Bend.
What did the Everett, Washington, native do during his season off? Quite a bit, actually.
“For me, I didn’t just want to go train somewhere,” Russell said. “That’s just worrying about one mind, just football. For me, I just took advantage of this opportunity away.
“ … I went to school, I was working in real estate — I’m management now but I was business marketing at the time — and I never had a job, so I kind of wanted to take advantage of that void in my life that I never had a job to take on a job. And not just any job, really learning about how markets operate, how markets work and real estate itself, I wanted to learn about that and how business works because I want to go into the field some day.
“But I also wanted to take classes to continue toward my degree, so I knocked out all my electives while I was there, and I was getting some top-notch training back home, so I tried to get all facets of my life with where I was.”
Russell said he didn’t simply want to brush his “mistake” under the rug, opting instead to pursue something meaningful out of the experience.
“The mistakes I make, I want to learn about that mistake,” Russell said. “I don’t just want to, ‘OK, let me just get past the mistake.’ A lot of people just want to get past mistakes and, OK, they’re not worried about it, and that mistake just sits with them so it can happen again. For me, it was like, ‘OK, made a mistake, cool. Let’s see how — how can we turn this mistake into something good?’”
Staying aligned with his philosophy on his year off, Russell said he doesn’t shy away from discussing his experience.
“I don’t mind talking about the situation — it’s something I’m kind of proud of now that I got through it, but I got through it in a meaningful fashion, I guess,” he said.
With Russell gone and injuries mounting up, the Irish lost all four of those defining November games a season ago — something the cornerback had to deal with 1,800 miles away.
“It was tough. It was really, really tough just because I know how special that season could have been, too — for myself but also playing with those guys,” Russell said.
“It was one of those moments — I say it all the time, and it kind of gets repetitive, but it’s true — it’s tough to see because you want to see them win, but you can’t. You really can’t. You just have to sit back and take on some of the guilt. If I was there, could I have helped? Am I part of this, all this losing?”
Russell got through it by finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to mellow yourself down,” he said. “It’s tough to see, but everything was going to eventually get better.”
For Russell, he saw a taste of success from day one at Notre Dame. When he came in as a freshman in 2012, he quickly earned a starting spot at nickelback.
“I was going to be starting at nickel, so I kind of solidified a starting position,” Russell said. “You know, as a true freshman you want to start, you want to play.”
But then Russell got his break with what he calls an “unfortunate, fortunate event,” when starting cornerback Lo Wood went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in August. It meant Russell would be playing more than just the handful of nickel packages that would’ve featured him.
“Lo Wood went down, and then the next day, I see the depth chart, and I see myself with the ones,” Russell said. “I knew I worked hard enough to get there, but it was still a surreal feeling, right, to be a true freshman at the University of Notre Dame. Especially since I switched over to cornerback three weeks before the first game.”
Russell’s strong play during his freshman year earned him national recognition — he was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writers’ Association of America — and the Irish a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, where they lost 42-14 to Alabama.
“You have a different kind of fire because you lost it, you understand that extra edge you need to go,” he said of the experience. “I think that’s the thing I take with me.”
Now he’s back, and starting in a secondary that looks a lot different than the one he last played in at Notre Dame, when former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme was the law of the land. With Brian VanGorder now in charge of the defensive corps with a wildly different scheme, Russell had to adjust.
“To come from the system I had, the Coach Diaco system where it’s kind of ‘bend, don’t break,’ right, and I was going into the system last year, and then I missed that year,” Russell said. “I kind of came into a more aggressive system, and it’s like you’re throwing someone new into a new pool, right? So I kinda had to get that adjustment. I had a year off, had a new system, new techniques — I hadn’t played man coverage — a new coach. So there’s so many factors that came with it.”
A month ago, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said while Russell was putting in the effort, it wasn’t yet clicking on Saturdays.
“KeiVarae works so hard in practice,” Kelly said Oct. 6. “We just need to see that translate itself into games. It hasn’t got there yet. We think maybe the year off has been a bit of a transition for him, but he works so hard in practice. The want to and the desire is there.”
Russell said he may have underestimated what it would take to adjust — and he found a flaw in his preparation.
“Even I, myself, I kind of overlooked all those factors, right, so I think that’s what it was,” he said. “So I just had to sit back, really, and go ‘OK, how do I get back? Season’s long, right, and you’re a great athlete, we already know that, so how do I allow your traits to just go out there and play?’ I started realizing in my preparation, just really being in good positions at all times when I’m in practice. Not just, ‘Okay, the ball’s not coming my way, I don’t have to be in good position.’ So now, you watch film, even if the ball’s the other way, I’m still acting like the ball’s on my side. I’m finishing the plays off, and that’s what [defensive backs coach Todd Lyght] taught me.”
And after his last three outings, it’s hard to argue he hasn’t figured something out.
Against Navy, Russell led the Irish in solo tackles with seven, stifling the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack.
A week later, he intercepted USC senior quarterback Cody Kessler in the fourth quarter to help preserve an Irish lead and then tipped a pass junior safety Max Redfield intercepted to effectively secure the rivalry win.
In a more pressing situation last Saturday, Russell intercepted Temple junior quarterback P.J. Walker in the closing minutes to ensure the Irish escaped with a third consecutive win.
This week he’ll be matched up with Pittsburgh junior receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers. It’s a battle Russell said he’s looking forward to.
“It’s going to be fun. … I’m really excited for that challenge, playing against a good player,” Russell said. “But I have to realize, he’s playing against a good player, too. He’s not just gonna be able to run by me, he’s not just gonna be able to out physical me, out jump me, stuff like that. So I’m pretty sure he’s doing his study just like I’m doing my study. I think that’s the excitement.
“ … He can’t come with his B-game, that’s not going to work. I can’t come with my B-game, it’s not going to work against him. I think that’s the exciting part — we both come with our A-game. Whoever comes with his A-game is going to win the matchup.”
But despite his recent success, Russell said he is confident in a more-improved future.
“It’s going to keep getting better,” he said. “It’s going to get better this week, the next week, the week after that — and hopefully to the playoff.”