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Football: Sophomore swagger

Mike Monaco | Monday, April 15, 2013

It was the eighth practice of the spring, and sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell was feeling good. He was having what he considered his best day of football yet. And when Russell feels good, he talks. A lot. 

“You’ve got to play a little arrogant,” Russell said after the early-April practice. “I was talking to [early enrollee receiver] James Onwualu. He came to my side one time, and they didn’t throw it. I was like ‘They ain’t throwing to you all day, man. Every time, you came this way and they still ain’t throwing it.’ And then every time they did throw it, it would get knocked down or overthrown. And I was like ‘Bro, you better stop coming over here.'”

Fresh off a rookie campaign in which he started all 13 games at cornerback for the Irish, Russell said his confidence has grown immensely heading into year two. As a result, the fast-talking, always chirping, 5-foot-11 cornerback has been showing off his newfound swagger throughout the spring. 

“Every day before we do 11-on-11, coach says ‘Show me something. Let’s go.’ And I love that feeling,” Russell said. “It’s like ‘Ok, let’s do it. Throw the ball my way. Throw it over here. Let’s make plays.'”

And though Russell made plenty of plays last season – he recorded two interceptions and was fifth on the team with 58 tackles – the Everett, Wash., native says he has a completely different mentality than he did in 2012. 

“[Arrogance on the field] comes with the territory of playing corner,” Russell said. “Whether someone catches a touchdown on you or not, you’ve just got to feel like this is my island – like [New York Jets cornerback Darrelle] Revis Island. That’s his island. You’re not going to catch anything over here, and I think that aspect of my mindset is totally different than it was last year.”
As a freshman starting on one of the nation’s best defenses, Russell said he played timidly because he was fearful of failing the team and letting people down. Unsure of himself, the freshman found guidance and garnered support from defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks and former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o.
“He used to take me in, just me and him, and talk,” Russell said of Te’o. “He’d be like ‘Man, you can do it. Coach wouldn’t put you in as a freshman if he didn’t think you could do the job.'”
And as the season went on, Russell’s fear of failure began to dissipate. Heading into the Oklahoma game Oct. 27, Russell and the Irish were preparing for Sooners quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Kenny Stills and the rest of the vaunted Oklahoma passing attack. But after holding the Sooners to just 13 points and no touchdowns through the air, the freshman cornerback’s confidence level rose.
“The coaches said they believed in me after that game,” Russell said. “And I’m like ‘Ok, we’ve got to get going.’ I always knew I had the talent and everything, but that only goes so far. You’ve got to have that mindset, that savviness. You want to go out there and ball out and just dominate whoever you go against.”
Now, Russell is lining up across from junior receiver DaVaris Daniels and senior receiver T.J. Jones and seeking out the pressure he shied from prior to the Oklahoma win.
“Last year, I was kind of timid,” Russell said. “Right now, when I go against T.J. or I go against DaVaris, I feel like I can play against anybody for sure. … I think [the key has been] just getting over that factor of fear, fear of letting people down. I like when I have the pressure on me now.”
Despite his new swagger, Russell said he won’t get too confident at the risk of complacency. The sophomore said his freshman year success doesn’t mean he’ll be in the starting lineup when the Irish open their season Aug. 31 against Temple.
“I’ve been working my tail off like I don’t have a spot, like I’ve never had a spot,” Russell said. “I feel like it’s threatened every day. That’s how I look at it.”
Russell would go to Cooks last season and ask what he needed to do to get better. The two came up with film of over 100 plays from the season in which Russell did something poorly. Russell said the plays – missed tackles, bad coverages – look “terrible” and have served as fuel for his sophomore season.
“I’m trying to take my game to the next level to be one of the elite corners as far as understanding film, understanding routes, concepts,” Russell said. “I’m trying to understand the game now. I’m trying to break it down one by one each and every day. Just work on something little each and every day.”
Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected]