NOTRE DAME — Scanning Notre Dame’s deep wide receiver corps, KeiVarae Russell sees flashes of his opponents.
When the Notre Dame junior cornerback lines up against Corey Robinson, he sees Arizona State’s Jaelan Strong. With Chris Brown, it’s USC’s Nelson Agholor.
In his quest to be the top cornerback in the country, Russell has become a student of the opposition. He reads up on players like Strong, Agholor and North Carolina slot receiver Ryan Switzer. He pinpoints their strengths and mentally aligns them with a corresponding teammate.
Like Strong, Robinson is a big, physical target with a wide catch radius. Like Agholor, Brown is fast and deadly downfield.
“You look at our team, you’ve got guys who can run a 4.3, guys who can run 4.6 but they’re stronger at the line of scrimmage,” Russell said after practice Monday, Aug. 4. “I’m going against speed. I’m going against strength. So it’s preparing me a lot.”
Russell is entering his third year in the Notre Dame defensive backfield. The one-time running back has started every game Notre Dame has played since he’s been enrolled.
Those 26 career starts are more than any other player on the roster save for fellow cornerback Cody Riggs, who started 26 games in three seasons at Florida before transferring to Notre Dame in June. The confidence oozes from Russell, who declared he would be “the best corner in the country next year” after December’s Pinstripe Bowl.
“I think he has taken on this role as one of a challenge where he wants to be that (New England Patriots cornerback Darelle) Revis. He wants to be that (Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick) Peterson,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “He wants to be the very best at his position, so he's driven to be that player. He's not there yet, so that's his focus.”
Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame’s defense will feature a more aggressive, man-to-man look than the “bend-don’t-break” philosophy of former coordinator Bob Diaco.
That new approach will leave Irish cornerbacks out on an island, an idea that Russell relishes. If he’s going to be the country’s premiere lockdown corner, what better way to showcase it than in man-to-man coverage?
“It’s tough, it’s tiring. During one-on-ones, I was a little sluggish today but once I got in the groove ... It was easy,” Russell said after the first day of training camp Monday. “All you got to do is focus on one man instead of a zone. It seems simple to me. I enjoy this man concept.”
Russell returns to the field with hopes of capitalizing on a 2013 campaign that totaled 51 tackles, a team-high eight pass breakups, one interception and one fumble recovery. His focus throughout August will be on his technique, which he says is one of the remaining pieces in becoming the complete package.
“I want to get to a point where my technique is flawless, that when people go against me they’re like, ’Ah damn, him again?’” Russell said. “I’ve got to perfect my game.”