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Russell’s potential fifth-year return requires an NCAA waiver

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Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell has not announced his intentions for 2016. But if Russell wishes to return for a fifth-year in South Bend, he’ll require a waiver from the NCAA to do it.

Russell’s entanglement in the Frozen Five academic fiasco made his return to Notre Dame an accomplishment, with Russell on track to earn his diploma after serving a two semester academic suspension last year. But if the senior cornerback wants to play out his four seasons of competition for the Irish—and perhaps bolster his NFL Draft status in the process—he’ll need to ask the NCAA first.

“He’d have to appeal to get another year through the NCAA,” head coach Brian Kelly explained on Sunday. “We’re going to submit one, but it’ll have to be a wait and see.”

Notre Dame’s fifth-year process is much different than most universities. Each candidate applies for admission into graduate school, with each student-athlete having his undergraduate degree work complete. We’ve seen players like Joe Schmidt, Nick Martin and Matthias Farley return as graduate students. We’ve seen many others—Everett Golson the most high-profile—leave and play out their eligibility elsewhere.

The deadline to declare for the NFL Draft for underclassmen is January 18. Notre Dame expects to hear back from the NCAA on their waiver before that date, so Russell isn’t put into a precarious situation where he’ll need to gamble on his future.

Heading into this season, the prevailing sentiment—with Russell all but saying it from the day he returned to South Bend—was that this was the cornerback’s final season in college football. Projected as an early round pick, Russell may have been Notre Dame’s most dependable defensive back, but he was hardly bullet proof, with opposing quarterbacks completing 34 of 60 throws his way, per CFB Film Room’s analysis. Add in Russell’s recovery from a significant leg injury and losing time to train for the scouting combine in Indianapolis and a return for a fifth season might make good business sense.

Notre Dame’s coaching staff plans on having discussions with all senior and fifth-year candidates in the near future. Neither Kelly nor Russell has discussed the cornerback’s future status, other than to say that the senior will not be healthy enough to play against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.