SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On the 10-year anniversary of the infamous “Bush Push” game, KeiVarae Russell admitted he, unlike everyone he’s surrounded by in Indiana, was pleased with the result.
“I wore five in high school because of Reggie Bush, so I was watching that game, I was going crazy,” Russell said. “I didn’t care about Notre Dame. I was hoping USC won that game.”
Russell didn’t understand the scope and history of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry until he arrived in South Bend back in 2012. His interception against USC later that year helped the Irish seal an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship.
And now, after a first half of the 2015 season in which he maybe hasn’t lived up to expectations, the senior cornerback expects to get everyone back on the KeiVarae Russell bandwagon against the team he grew up rooting for.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
“I mean, yeah it’s strange I’m here now, right?” Russell said. “And that I’m excited to dominate these guys, right? But watching that Bush Push I remember vividly getting kinda hyped on that.”
Russell bristled at the notion he’s having a down year, pointing to his 32 tackles (third on the team), three pass break-ups, two and a half tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble. Those numbers are solid, though not spectacular for a guy pegged by some early 2016 NFL Draft analyses as a potential first or second-round pick.
There’s a stat that’s missing from Russell’s line, though, which he believes is contributing to the perception that he didn’t have a good first six games in his return from his 2014 suspension.
“But since I don’t have the four interceptions, I’m having a terrible season, right?” Russell said. “Like, it’s crazy. ‘Oh my God KeiVarae Russell, you should’ve done all this.’ That’s the funniest part about it, that’s why I just ignore the silence and just constantly just work on my craft, because I know I’m gonna ball.”
[MORE: Fuller's effort doesn't change as defenses do]
It’s misleading to point to the Irish secondary allowing the 12th-fewest average passing yards per game, though — not only because that’s a flawed, basic statistic, but because one-third of Notre Dame’s opponents ran triple option offenses. This is a group that helped allow Virginia’s generally-mediocre Matt Johns-Canaan Severin tandem to look like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
But with nothing but conventional offenses to prepare for the rest of the season, coach Brian Kelly believes the Irish secondary will begin to more consistently lock down opponents and create more opportunities for defensive success.
“If you can play man coverage, you get a lot more variety, and certainly we feel like we can play man,” Kelly said. “That allows us to do some more things, and we feel Cole (Luke) and KeiVarae are capable of doing that. I think this stretch of games are going to allow us to do a little bit more of that after getting through the two option teams over the last month.”
Luke has solid disruptive numbers with two interceptions and three pass break-ups, but he also had a full year to learn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme. Russell’s academic suspension left him with only handful of spring and preseason practices to transition from Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break defense to VanGorder’s more aggressive style, and Kelly said the Washington native still had some rust to shake off when he returned to practice this August.
Russell admitted he needed to practice better after re-joining the team, and said he went into Navy week with a renewed focus that paid off in a 17-point win over the Mids. Notre Dame will need that focus to translate into improved play, though, to clamp down on a USC aerial attack headlined by explosive playmakers in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson and senior quarterback Cody Kessler.
Naturally, though, Russell isn’t lacking for confidence in his ability to not only play better, but to play like an elite cornerback.
“I understand how talented I am, but I’m always pushing this, like: Dude, you’re just as fast as this guy, you’re just as strong as this guy, go out there and ball,” Russell said. “So that’s kind of where my confidence comes.”