CULVER, Ind. — While Notre Dame slogged through a miserable November, KeiVarae Russell experienced a different kind of disappointment watching his teammates lose four consecutive games last year.
Before his academic suspension exiled him to his native Washington, Russell was poised to be one of Notre Dame’s most important defensive players, and he told Sports Illustrated he was in line to be a team captain. That was all taken away from him in mid-August when the university announced he was one of four players (later to be five) being investigated for academic dishonesty.
Now that he’s back with his teammates — though still awaiting final NCAA clearance, which Notre Dame expects to happen soon — Russell feels like what he went through a year ago will make him a better leader.
“No one on this team knows what it’s like to miss a year,” Russell said. “Yeah, you might tear an ACL, you might get injured — that’s different than it being stripped away from you. It’s totally different. I couldn’t go to the games, watch the games. I couldn’t be a part of it. So some guys really don’t understand what it’s like. I do. I’m excited to see how I use that as fuel to lead these guys.”
Russell returned to Notre Dame with a take-nothing-for-granted approach, since he’s seen how quickly everything can be taken away. It adds another layer to the kind of leadership coach Brian Kelly already saw in his cornerback, which is a welcome addition back into a defense that had a leadership vacuum following injuries to plenty of upperclassmen last year.
“He has a presence,” Kelly said. “He communicates loudly. I love that. And it's very positive, extremely positive. He's not a guy that's running around screaming at somebody. When he says something, there is a positive note to it, a very positive note to it. That is well received.”
Without Russell and Jarrett Grace to begin the season, and then rolling losses of Austin Collinsworth, Cody Riggs, Joe Schmidt and Sheldon Day, Notre Dame lacked leadership and communication on a defense that disintegrated in the season’s final month. But with Russell, Grace, Schmidt and Day back, and Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield taking on increased leadership duties, there’s all of a sudden a wealth of experienced, talented players to lead the Irish defense.
Russell’s inclusion in that mix provides another go-to voice.
“Everyone knows what KeiVarae brings to the table,” Smith said. “Criticize you when you need to be criticized. And we need that. Just the great leader that he is, he's back, he's humble, he's focused and we're locked in, we're good to go.”
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From a talent perspective, Russell and junior Cole Luke give the Irish one of the better cornerback duos in the country. Russell is eager to finally have a shot to play more press coverage in Brian VanGorder’s defense and considers himself one of the best athletes in the country. There’s no shortage of confidence in his ability as a football player. It’s that unquantifiable leadership Russell is focusing on improving during August practices.
“The skill, I’m going to be a better player,” Russell said. “I’m going to be a way better player next year. That’s easy. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about myself as a leader, how am I going to be able to get guys rallied up in Game 6 as I am in Game 1, and I going to be able to do that and constantly understand and preach to these guys what it’s like to not have it.”