Russell embraces aggressive style

A new scheme and new challenges await Notre Dame cornerbacks in 2014. KeiVarae Russell couldn't be happier.

Words such as "battle" and "war" are used far too often as a point of comparison to sports, especially the brutal ballet that plays out on the gridiron.

But a centuries old war phrase, "No quarter given, none taken" is one that can be embraced by Notre Dame junior cornerback Keivarae Russell. And from his point of view, it's about time.

"I want you to know, if you catch this ball, I want you to walk away thinking, "Phew, that's a tough (cover)," said Russell of his approach this spring and that of the Irish cornerbacks for the upcoming campaign. "It's (no longer) 'Next play, next play,' if you make a catch, I want it to be difficult.

"You can ask every receiver here how annoying it is to play against me. I'm grabbing, I'm pushing, I'm pulling, I'm grabbing your face mask. I don't care what you do, you're not catching nothing easy on me."

It's a perimeter approach favored by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, one in stark contrast to the style Russell and his Irish mates employed under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

"Previous years we'd give up certain routes depending on what the defensive scheme was," Russell offered. "This year, you compete on every route. There's no routes they get easily. If they catch something, it better be a difficult catch. Make them work. And that's how I feel, my mindset is like that. That's why I prefer to play press man, and we'll play more man this year, maybe 80 percent, maybe more.

The Irish secondary yielded just 7 passing scores during the 2012 regular season; 19 last fall

Most cornerbacks worth their salt prefer man coverage. The challenge, the competition, the proof of a winner on every snap. It's a high risk, high reward approach to the game, and one Notre Dame failed with, famously and miserably, before Diaco's arrival in 2010.

"Coach D, he wanted to keep everything in front because big plays really cause losing," Russell said. "Coach D's philosophy was great but we never could really cause many turnovers just because we weren't really aggressive. This one, there will be a lot of turnovers caused.

"(Van Gorder) wants you to cover every single route. Two-yard curl, he wants you on it. That's his mind-set: Don't give them anything. Coach Diaco, it was more, ‘Give them this, give them that, give them the five-yard out, because it won't beat us.' Coach Diaco believes that big plays cause losing, and Coach VanGorder is, ‘Whatever happens, happens. But we want you on it and go from there.'"

In 2012, Notre Dame allowed seven passing touchdowns in the 12-game regular season. Remarkably just one was in excess of 11 yards. When executed properly (sound tackling after the catch, quality safety play, an effective pass rush without the blitz), the conservative, sound approach worked wonders.

Last season, open field tackling proved shoddy, the safeties struggled, the pass rush was inconsistent throughout. Notre Dame's defense nonetheless yielded just 22.4 points per game, good for No. 27 nationally, but the defense rarely aided the offense with plus field position or momentum swings.

Turnovers proved difficult to come by as the 2013 Irish avoided a potential all-time program low total with four interceptions in the Pinstripe Bowl, December 29, a game Diaco did not coach. It was the second time in three seasons the Irish flirted with such futility, with 17 total turnovers forced last fall and a mere 14 in 2011. (Notre Dame's defense created 23 turnovers in 2012; 25 in 2010.)

Change is afoot, for better or worse.

"When you're playing man to man you're going to get a lot different routes than in zone," Russell said. "I have to transition my mind and say we're going to be a lot more aggressive, blitzing a lot more, so the ball is going to come out a lot faster."

"We're like predators back there now. No matter what route you run, we want to be on it, from a two-yard out to a go. We're competing on every route."

Competition Russell embraces. Competition he believes will help prove he's among the nation's best.

"I've developed into a player now," Russell said of his previous two seasons as a starter. "I'm going to ball out. I'm predicting it now: You test me all game, you're going to lose. You can put that in the papers or not." Top Stories