What does a shortage of hot water at Shiloh Park have to do with a better Notre Dame secondary this year?
NOTRE DAME — If you see Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell pull down an interception in a tight game this year, thank the hot-water rationing at Shiloh Park.
High-level collegiate athletes they may be, but most of the players on the Notre Dame football team wouldn't be ideal contestants for Man vs. Wild.
Notre Dame's biggest challenge of the preseason may have happened during the team's four-day stay at Shiloh Park near Marion, but not necessarily on the football field.
Russell said his teammates were in a predicament the moment basic math told them that nine guys sharing two bathrooms meant not everyone was going to get hot water in the shower.
“We had to solve problems like who was going to go first, how long he was going to take,” Russell said. “Because the water got cold real quick. You couldn't be in there for 10 minutes. So after five minutes, people are yelling at each other to get out. That's a problem-solving issue.”
Russell likened the Shiloh Park shower schedules to split-second decision-making the defense has to handle in the heat of a game.
“Half our team hates being out in the wilderness,” the sophomore said. “I hate it. I hate the woods. I hate bugs. It makes you eager in an uncomfortable area, just like in a game. At an away game, you hear all the noise. You can't hear calls. You're miserable. What are you going to do to win the game?”
Russell would know a thing or two about adapting to the unpredictable game of college football. Last year, when chunks of the secondary went down with various injuries, the then-freshman was called upon to start at a position he hadn't played since his sophomore year of high school.
He finished the year with 58 tackles and two interceptions and enters this season as an established starter over senior Lo Wood, who has recovered from an Achilles tendon injury that kept him sidelined last year.
Russell knows his game is more polished than it was at this time last year. On top of his wilderness experience at Shiloh Park, Russell also attended the Rosenthal Leadership Academy with fellow cornerback Bennett Jackson, where the two conquered their fear of heights by jumping off 18- and 25-foot wooden poles.
Russell also feels comforted knowing there is more depth and experience in the backfield than there was a year ago.
There's room for a rotation now, with Jackson returning alongside him, Wood back in the mix and juniors Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson looking to earn more game experience. Freshman Cole Luke has also taken reps with the second-team defense during preseason camp.
Safety Nicky Baratti dislocated his shoulder during practice on Saturday, Aug. 9, and will be out for the season. Instead of scrambling to find a replacement, Notre Dame has Elijah Shumate and Austin Collinsworth ready to fill the gap with freshman Max Redfield and sophomore John Turner close behind.
While a more loaded secondary partially puts Russell at ease, it also keeps him on his toes. He knows he has Wood barking at his heels.
“Me and Lo battle,” He said. “We're neck and neck. At the end of the day, we don't know who is the starter but somebody just has to go in first. I don't see that anyone has a locked-in spot. You could have a perfect day and one bad play will send you down the depth chart.” He knows what's expected of his unit this year. He knows a more experienced, loaded secondary can only help the front seven, including a defensive line touted as one of the best in the country.
“Last year everybody talked so much about the D-line,” he said. “Our D-line is one of the best in the country. Those guys are insane freaks. At the end of the day, you need a great secondary. Last year we were going in to play and now we're going in to dominate.”
There's little doubt that Russell can replicate last year's season that earned him freshman All-American accolades.
After all, if he can fend off mosquitoes at Shiloh Park, the belligerent fans at Michigan's Big House shouldn't be a problem.