Don’t talk to KeiVarae Russell anymore about his suspension. He’s not all that interested. He discussed it with Sports Illustrated, he discussed it at the opening of training camp and he continued to answer questions about it on Media Day.
And for as much as Russell enjoys talking—and the free-flowing senior enjoys it quite a bit—he’s glad that he can finally let his play on the field do the talking, instead of being defined for the academic predicament he found himself in for the past 12 months.
“It got annoying when people would come up to you and ask how you were doing. It got kind of redundant,” Russell explained. “Just talk to me like I’m normal.”
That’s not to say things were always easy. Or that the easygoing lockdown cornerback was always at ease with things. But once he got home to Washington, he established a routine and found some clarity in a very uncertain process.
“The tough time for us was last year. When we didn’t know what was going on. When I didn’t know if I was coming back for sure. When I was back home, I didn’t think it was that tough of a time.”
When Brian Kelly dropped into the middle of his press conference that Russell was formally cleared by the NCAA to continue his football career, it allowed Russell to finally put the last 12 months behind him.
“I know for a fact that I’m going to play in 2015,” Russell said with a smile. “With that, it just really excites you. When you have that fire inside, you go so hard.”
That fire has never been an issue for Russell. And the senior cornerback is now intent on making sure his name is synonymous for the brand of football he plays, not for a poor academic decision that he made.
Want to get Russell talking? Just ask about football. That megawatt smile turns on and the words just let loose.
Ask him about this defensive scheme, and how excited he is to play in it. Ask him about matching up with the opponents’ top receiver, and he’ll run you through the slate of receivers on his upcoming schedule.
Put him on an island or move him inside to the slot? Russell will do whatever is asked of him, feeling like the luckiest man in the world that he gets to play in Brian VanGorder’s aggressive scheme.
“I definitely want to be on an island. I’d love that. But I’m going to do whatever coach wants me to do. If he wants me to play one side, I’ll play one side,” Russell said.
But Russell made it clear that he wants the responsibility of taking on opponents’ top targets. That could be Pitt’s Tyler Boyd, or USC’s JuJu Smith or Adoree Jackson.
“Being a senior corner and also having an understanding of the game beyond our other defensive backs, I feel like I would rather have that pressure rather than put that on Cole Luke or a younger guy or on our safeties. I think I’d like to have that pressure.”
Russell returns to a secondary that doesn’t look like the last one he played in. He’s played exactly one game next to Max Redfield. Cornerback Cole Luke was a freshman learning behind Russell and Bennett Jackson that year while Elijah Shumate struggled with injuries for much of 2013. But Russell found his way back onto this roster with little difficulty, and he’s quickly added some much-needed leadership to a secondary that struggled in 2014 as it learned a brand new system.
Now he’s infusing confidence. And demanding his teammates give the same effort that he does.
“I demand that however I play, I demand the same from them. I demand a dominance. I demand a confidence, I demand that you work on your technique and your craft every day,” Russell said. “I want them to be like that with me, too. The more they’re on me, the better I’m going to be. This defense won’t be as good unless I’m going to be the best I can possibly be and unless they’re the best they can possibly be.”
That mindset was evident at practice on Tuesday and Kelly has talked about the level of competition he’s seen when his heralded receiving corps goes up against the defensive backs in practice.
With expectations sky high in 2015, Russell knows this is his best chance to return to the national stage that he experienced as a freshman. And while some worry about rust, Russell’s spent fall camp refining his technique, adding a final piece to an elite physical skill-set that Russell spent the last calendar year building.
So it’s finally time. Suspension over, escape from purgatory complete. Now Russell can get back to telling his story in the way he’s always wanted, reminding the college football world that he’s a fearless cornerback whose game matches his words.
“I don’t really care who you are. Tall, big, fast, anything. I know that when I play with good technique I can run with you, I can jump with you and I’m just as strong as anybody.”
And come September 5th, he can finally prove it.