CULVER, Ind. — For the first time in nearly a full year, KeiVarae Russell put on his white No. 6 jersey and was able to practice with his teammates as Notre Dame began preseason camp 40 miles south of campus at Culver Academies on Thursday.
And the senior cornerback couldn’t have been more excited to run through a generally droll day largely consisting of non-contact position drills.
“I was hype. Even warming up felt good with the guys,” Russell, who was suspended for the 2014 season after Notre Dame found him guilty of academic dishonesty, said. “It’s a surreal feeling to be back and it did feel like a full year. … I gotta convince myself, it is time, it’s time to go, it’s time to play football again. It’s football time. This ain’t a dream.”
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Russell has yet to be cleared by the NCAA, but Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he and the football program “feel strongly” about his eligibility. That’s why he’s practicing with the team while defensive end Ishaq Williams, whose eligibility case is completely different, isn't.
Russell always made it clear he intended to return to Notre Dame. He took classes at the University of Washington in the spring and checked off all of the NCAA’s requirements to get back to the team for which he started all 26 games in 2012 and 2013. His workout videos on Instagram provided a peek into the intense strength and conditioning program he put himself through in his native Washington, thousands of miles away from an Irish team that started 6-0 and stumbled to a an 8-5 finish.
Watching games wasn’t easy for Russell last year, and he admitted he certainly felt some level of guilt — especially while watching the Irish defense crumble in November. But he knew he had to stay focused on the tasks in front of him, which had to be completed for him to get back South Bend.
“That’s why I never visited Notre Dame or come back to my team, because I had a job to do when I was back home,” Russell said. “… I had to handle my business away and not get too caught up in all that guilt, I couldn’t be caught up in that. (I had to) handle my business, take responsibility for what I’d done and let them go through a season.”
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Russell’s decision to return was a mutually beneficial one for both himself and Brian VanGorder’s defense.
A year ago, Russell raved about his excitement in getting a chance to play for an coordinator with NFL experience who’d let him play more press and man coverage than he did in Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break scheme. Getting a full season in VanGorder’s scheme should position Russell well for his future in the NFL.
And for Notre Dame, Russell’s return gives it an elite pair of cornerbacks with him and Cole Luke, who had a breakout 2014 season in Russell’s absence.
“Having him back is comforting to know the defense is strengthened with him and Cole and all of the young guys,” junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said.
“It’s hard to put myself in his shoes,” coach Brain Kelly said. “He just loves football. I’m sure it’s a big day for him just to get out here and play. You can see the smile on his face. I’m so happy he’s able to get past all the things in front of him. It’s been long. He’s had to work hard to get back here. All the credit goes to him. He’s really had to sacrifice a lot to get back here. That’s why it’s great to see him back here.”
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After Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, Russell — who never played cornerback until he got to Notre Dame — said he was a “full blown corner” and felt like he could be the best player at his position in the country. Even after a year off, he still has the same confidence — “I’m going to be a way better player next year,” he said — and can focus on working to accomplish the goals that were chief reasons why he stuck to his plan of getting back to Notre Dame.
“I want to be a champion, I want a ring,” Russell said. “I believe this team is special. … I feel like it was a coward move if I left. I feel like I have stuff left to finish as a leader and as a player.
“I had to come back. It was an easy decision.”