SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Plenty has changed since KeiVarae Russell last played at Notre Dame Stadium.
To recap: A new company making the uniforms, new (artificial) turf, a new defensive coordinator and a new defensive backs coach. The in-progress Campus Crossroads construction of buildings on the east and west sides of the stadium will be a backdrop to this season. Jaylon Smith has bulked up and is a star in the making and the “former walk-on Joe Schmidt” storyline has been overshadowed by the “team MVP Joe Schmidt” one. There’s a new quarterback on the other side of the ball, too.
Russell, the senior cornerback who was academically suspended last season, admitted he’ll have to find a way to relax and not let the adrenaline rush overtake him in the moments leading up to Notre Dame’s season opener against Texas in primetime on Saturday, his first home game since a snowy win over BYU on Nov. 23, 2013. He’s had Sept. 5, 2015 circled for a while now and used it as motivation while training in his native Washington during his ban.
“This one’s going to be crazy, I already know it,” Russell said. “I was glad it was a home game too so I could run out of the tunnel once again. I definitely had it in the back of my mind when I was training, I couldn’t wait. (You take it) day by day, but of course you do look a little ahead at times, Sept. 5 can’t come any sooner.
“… This isn’t a joke anymore. You’re not watching TV anymore. You’re not going to work out anymore. This is game time.”
Russell returns to Notre Dame tasked with a different challenge in second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s aggressive scheme, which will slide him inside to defend slot receivers in its nickel packages. He’ll still play outside opposite Cole Luke — who had an excellent sophomore season last fall — in Notre Dame’s base defense, but like Smith will be moved around the field to keep opposing defenses from keying on him and planning to take him out of certain plays.
Russell said he’s liked learning how to play his nickel role and raved about a new opportunity to play man coverage and get his hands on receivers (with some help behind him, too), which he rarely was able to do in Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break scheme. It’s a role that requires a blend of patience and aggression in defending slot receivers, but also will grant Russell some pass rushing opportunities.
The good news for VanGorder and Notre Dame: While plenty has changed in the nearly two years since he last played, his innate confidence remains as high as ever.
“If a running back or a quarterback is trying to run away, I don’t think it’s going to work,” Russell described of his mentality when being sent on blitzes. “Especially a quarterback — if he tries to run away, I’m just going to smile because I know that sack’s coming. I know he better throw it away because unless you’re Mike Vick, you ain’t getting away.”
While coach Brian Kelly said Russell had to shake off some rust during preseason camp in August, Russell chalked that up to being merely good, not great, during practice. Given Russell has said since the Pinstripe Bowl he feels he can be the best cornerback in the country, he welcomed the tough criticism he received last month in helping him quickly return to the point where he can reach that lofty goal.
The key for Russell when he takes the field on Saturday against Texas will be to play with good fundamentals and technique, since if he can do that, he believes he’ll be able to dominate whatever receiver the Longhorns — or any other opponent — match up against him this year.
“The confidence helps out when you’re just as fast as anybody, you’re just as damn near strong as anybody,” Russell said. “I’m just athletically gifted, I can jump with anybody. That helps out too, I’m not gonna lie, that does help out. But also I work on my craft each and every day, and I know if my techniques at the line of scrimmage are good, you’re not gonna run away from me, you’re not gonna out-muscle me, you’re not gonna do any of that.
“So with that in the back of my mind, I just gotta make sure my fundamentals are right, he can’t beat me, that really fuels me when I’m training. I’m not trying to get faster, I’m not trying to jump higher. If I didn’t get any faster or jump any higher, I’d still be an elite athlete. But I’m trying to be an elite corner. An elite athlete can’t win all the time, an elite corner can. So that’s where that confidence builds in — you’re already elite as an athlete, that should fuel you to be better fundamentally too.
“Because if you’re that, there aren’t going to be many guys that can beat you.”