Inked to help fill a running back depth chart in need of reinforcements, KeiVarae Russell became a cornerback by accident, moving to the position after Tee Shepard failed to make it to spring practice. But Russell became a quick study, filling a gigantic hole at cornerback on the 2012 defense and making 26 straight starts at the position.
Looking like an All-American candidate entering the 2014 season, his future is up for grabs, with an academic investigation going on to determine whether or not Russell broke the rules of the university’s Honor Code.
One of the key players on Notre Dame’s roster and (up until now) a shining example of a student-athlete on campus, Russell’s role on the Irish now waits for the dust to settle on another academic suspension threatening to short-circuit a season before it starts.
5’11 190 lbs.
Junior, No. 6
Russell was one of the top recruits in the Pacific Northwest, choosing Notre Dame as a dual-threat running back over places like Washington, USC, Stanford and Oregon. He was a Top 150 recruit and a Top 5 all-purpose back, as rated by 247. Russell was an impressive track athlete at Mariner High as well, and showed a versatility that made him an easy choice to transition to defense.
As impressive as Russell was on the field, he also dazzled off the field, showcasing a personality that had Brian Kelly raving on Signing Day.
“I think the first thing that hit me when recruiting KeiVarae is his personality, always positive, always talking about the future and what he hopes to accomplish,” Kelly said. “I love being around young men that have a plan, have an understanding of what their future looks like and how Notre Dame can best help him get there. Always has a smile on his face, always upbeat and, again, he’s an outstanding player or we wouldn’t be recruiting him.
“The playing ability fits that profile that we’re looking for at the running back position, he lined up in the All‑Star game as a wide receiver, he can play wide receiver, he can play the running back position and also can be a specialist for us, so he is a guy that has the ability to do a lot of jobs for us, if you will.”
Freshman Season (2012): Started all 13 games for the Irish, named to multiple Freshman All-American teams. Had 58 tackles from the field cornerback position and made two interceptions, including one late against USC to clinch a berth in the BCS title game.
Sophomore Season (2013): Started all 13 games for the Irish, making 51 tackles and one interception. Broke up three passes in the Pinstripe Bowl. Also broke up three passes against Michigan State.
Viewed by many to be a potential first or second round draft pick, Russell’s loss takes away the strength of the Irish defense, with Notre Dame short a No. 1 cornerback for as long as the academic investigation continues. With great length, very good speed and athleticism, Russell is only now understanding how to play the cornerback position, a somewhat raw skill-set that appeals to NFL teams looking for high upside players.
Before Friday, Russell was viewed as just as strong of a teammate off the field as on. He was a candidate to be a team captain and likely would’ve been named one had he not be included in the academic query. Russell’s career may be murky right now, but there’s been no indication that he’s going anywhere, spotted roaming the Gug after Media Day proceedings were over.
The academic investigation into what happened at summer school will determine how quickly Russell returns to the field. But a great season could’ve given Russell a tough decision to make, whether to move on to the NFL or return for a senior year. Right now, it’s impossible to look ahead, with no true idea as to what could be ahead for not just Russell, but the four athletes involved in the probe.
The secondary’s poor game against Michigan last season was a glaring weakness on the game tape Russell put together. But his strong finish against Rutgers, where Russell led the team in pass breakups and provided blanket coverage all game, put him in position to have a very strong 2014 season.
Kelly has talked about how impossible it is to replace a player of Russell’s caliber, a cornerback better than any the Irish have had in a long time, according to the head coach. Secondary coach Kerry Cooks has also used nothing but superlatives to describe the Seattle native, a player with the ability to become one of the best in the country.
Again, we’ll have to get to the truth of what happened in the classroom, and just how damning the situation may be. But if Russell is able to salvage any of his 2014 season, the Irish would get a huge boost.
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Torii Hunter Jr.