Part five of the series. See earlier work on Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin.
No. 74 overall to Kansas City
It was no surprise that KeiVarae Russell finished an impressive Notre Dame career by being selected with a premium pick in the NFL Draft. Just ask him.
From the moment Russell stepped onto campus as a four-star running back with multi-purpose versatility, the Washington native’s confidence was through the roof. And while that’s colored the lens through which we’ve observed Russell both on and off the field, it’s also maybe the biggest reason why he was able to make a training camp pivot to the defensive backfield and find a starting role at cornerback on one of the best defenses in Irish history.
Before the narrative of Russell’s career was overwhelmed by his role in the academic dishonesty investigation that took him off the team along with four other teammates in 2014, it was a development success story. Russell wasn’t an elite recruit, but he was a blue-chip prospect, the U.S. Army All-American picking Notre Dame over USC, Stanford, Cal, Washington and the rest of the Pac-12.
Even better, he carried the “RKG” tag. He was impressive in the classroom at Mariner High, active in the community. In many ways, Russell was one of the first to embody and perfect Brian Kelly’s recruiting model—find the intangibles Kelly used to look for at Central Michigan or Cincinnati, and land the high-end physical talent that’s expected at Notre Dame.
With 26 straight starts to begin his career, many thought Russell’s 2014 season could be his final one in South Bend. And it very nearly was, the shocking academic investigation ended the season for Russell in August before it even started.
A year that could’ve been a coronation was instead a reckoning. The well-chronicled time spent at home in Washington, working in a real-estate office, taking classes full-time, and training. And training. There was no shortage of training videos that came from Russell as he used Instagram as the outlet for his confidence.
That confidence was present when Russell said all the right things upon his reinstatement. It was apparent why it existed in a handful of game-changing plays he made during the 2015 season, clinching victories against USC and Temple with critical interceptions.
But Russell’s performance last season wasn’t what we expected. At times it was somewhat ordinary—Russell giving up underneath throws and passes you expected him to contest. Hardly the dominant, non-stop, high-impact play that Russell certainly expected of himself. But the stress fracture in Russell’s tibia that finally ended his season against Boston College helped reveal why.
Hounded from training camp, Russell gutted out the injury. As the team’s medical staff tried to figure out a solution for how best to keep the injury at bay, Russell played on—ending his Notre Dame career on a high-impact forced fumble, a fitting end even if it wasn’t the conclusion to his college career that he wanted.
Instead of wading through the murky NCAA waters in front of him, Russell decided to head to the NFL anyway. The timing wasn’t perfect from a performance perspective, but Russell did what you have come to expect from him, show confidence and talk a great game.
Even though he wasn’t able to workout at the NFL’s scouting combine, he did all the right things. Russell also impressed at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, not fully back from injury but still putting up strong numbers. Some of those physical traits that you didn’t always see on the field in 2015—explainable now that we know about the stress fracture.
While some wondered if Russell would slide on draft day, the Chiefs made him the 74th pick overall. It solidified the decision Russell made to leave, with a contract that’ll pay him more than $3 million certainly helping.
That personality? It’s already entertaining Chiefs fans, who heard Russell get emotional on draft day after the moment hit him. And the confidence? It shouldn’t be a shock that Russell expects himself to start from day one, replacing free-agent departure Sean Smith and forming an elite duo with Marcus Peters.
Now don’t be surprised when it happens. Russell won’t be.