KeiVarae Russell will soon be drafted into the NFL, taking with him a ton of speed, athleticism, and trash talk. How will ND replace his talent and swagger at cornerback?
Considering the 2015-2016 college football season is well behind us and the 2016 NFL Draft is just a few days away, Slap the Sign presents its “Exit Interviews,” where we review the players leaving the program, what they’re leaving behind and taking with them, and how Notre Dame plans on replacing their production and experience.
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Production at ND
KeiVarae Russell came to the University of Notre Dame in 2012 as a highly-touted running back prospect from Everett, Washington. However, with strong depth at the position with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, and Cam McDaniel already earning all of the carries available, and with very shallow depth at cornerback after senior Lo Wood tore his ACL during summer practice, coaches looked elsewhere for speed, fluid hips, and confidence that could be quickly coached up into a major contributor.
They found KeiVarae Russell, fast and athletic and exceptionally garrulous for a freshman learning a new position. He was named a starter alongside junior Bennett Jackson at cornerback, a surprise to many who didn’t expect a former running back to learn the position and win the job as a true frosh. Russell excelled in the role, challenged various times by opponents looking to exploit an inexperienced cover guy. He responded to each and every challenge, and on numerous occasions even made his opponents look foolish as he continued display a penchant for making big plays.
He finished the year with 58 tackles, 2 interceptions (1 each against Michigan and USC), and various Freshman All-American accolades. In 2013, Russell stepped it up another notch, becoming the premier corner on the team and forcing opposing QBs to generally avoid challenging him. He racked up 51 tackles (40 of them solo), 8 passes defended, an interception, and a fumble recovery. His play in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers was essentially flawless, earning him all kinds of praise and setting expectations for an All-American caliber season in 2014.
However, in the summer of ’14, Russell was one of five Irish football players suspended from the school for academic violations. As the summer turned into the fall and the players went through hearings and appeals, Russell watched painfully from home as sophomore Cole Luke and 5th-year grad transfer Cody Riggs played well at cornerback on a team that started strong but ultimately collapsed down the stretch. Russell was finally allowed to return to Notre Dame and to the team for the summer session of classes in 2015 after spending the year in Washington taking classes at a local college and training for his comeback. He was the only one of the five suspended to be readmitted.
In his senior season, Russell was expected by many to return to All-American-caliber form and pick up where he left off after the 2013 season. Unfortunately, any player who spends a year away from the team is bound to show a little rust, and Russell was no exception. Nevertheless, his return to the defense was very important with Riggs’ graduation, and
Russell turned in a strong season consisting of 60 tackles, a sack, two crucial interceptions against USC and Temple, four passes defended, and two forced fumbles. His year ended early in the Shamrock Series game at Fenway Park against Boston College, when he fractured his foot in the team’s 19-16 victory. He will graduate on time and has declared for the 2016 NFL Draft, ending his career with the Irish.
What His Departure Means, and Who Will Step In?
KeiVarae Russell may not have become an All-American in his final season at Notre Dame, but his departure for the NFL is still a major loss for a Notre Dame secondary that was much-maligned even with him there. His speed, athleticism, and cheeky confidence were all top-notch and allowed him to go toe-to-toe with just about any receiver in the country.
When he went down in November, Irish fans saw what the team was left with in Nick Watkins, a junior-to-be who is talented but hasn’t yet proven himself a reliable starter, and Devin Butler, a senior-to-be who is a solid backup but just not cut out to start at cornerback for a team like the Irish. Russell made various plays that were NFL-esque in terms of athleticism, including his interception against USC while covering Juju Smith-Schuster on a deep ball. He’s taking all that talent with him to the NFL, and it will definitely hurt the already questionable pass defense of Brian VanGorder’s unit.
Because Russell is leaving, though, Watkins and Butler are two of the prime candidates to replace him. Watkins started in his place in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, and played fairly well despite the Buckeyes attacking him constantly (when Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t busy running through the Irish defense). He is the odds-on favorite to start opposite Cole Luke come Labor Day Weekend. Rising sophomore Shaun Crawford stands as another talented and promising option, having now recovered from his 2015 ACL tear. However, he is still likely not ready to start at corner over Watkins, and will probably see a lot of time at nickel back, where he has garnered consistent praise from the coaching staff.
Favorite Personal Memory from Player’s Career
Besides his general loquaciousness (seriously, watch any interview he’s ever done – KeiVarae talks faster and with more charm and self-confidence than any other player on the ND roster), I have a few favorite and more specific memories from his career. Two of my fondest ones come from the USC game of 2012, when ND clinched its spot in the National Championship during my senior year. First, KeiVarae made a crucial interception of a Max Wittek deep ball thrown to Marquise Lee, then one of the best receivers in college football. Russell’s pick and then his description of the interception can be seen here:
Then, on USC’s most important drive of the game, as the Trojans were down 9 with time beginning to wind down on them and a touchdown being crucial for their chances for the upset, KeiVarae made a couple plays that most would probably chalk up as mistakes.
However, I will forever remember his two consecutive pass interferences as pure genius, considering it kept the ball out of Marquise Lee’s hands and made USC foolishly think they could simply punch it in from the inch-yard line against Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese, and the rest of the stupendously stout 2012 Irish defensive front. Those two pass interferences were veteran-level plays in terms of football IQ and allowed for another incredible goal line stand that clinched the undefeated season. Finally, his pick against USC this past season, making an unbelievable leaping interception over Smith-Schuster on a well-thrown pass by Cody Kessler, was monstrous in terms of momentum and really pushed the Irish to a victory in a close, well-fought game.
So, in conclusion, KeiVarae Russell is a huge loss for the Notre Dame football program. His swagger, talent, and playmaking ability were fantastic and will be very difficult to replace. He worked hard to right his academic wrongs and will graduate from ND and move on to be a mid-round pick in the NFL, where he will without a doubt talk a big game and likely be able to back it up as a solid cover corner. Good luck KeiVarae, and thank you for everything!