Raising the Bar

Irish junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell has a lofty goal: be the best player at his position in the nation. If he approaches that new level of play, Notre Dame's 2014 defense will be far better than projected.

His conversion from running the football to defending it downfield is a distant memory. So too is a 178-pound frame that had little shot of holding up vs. the nation's best in the biggest game of his college career to date.

Clutch outings as a presumed overmatched rookie (wins against Oklahoma and USC in 2012), and standout efforts (victories over Michigan State, USC, and Rutgers 2013), don't matter anymore. Nor does his unexpected 60-minute struggle vs. Michigan's Jeremy Gallon in Ann Arbor last fall.

For Keivarae Russell, the 2014 football season is all that matters. And if he meets his own expectations, it will likely be his last in South Bend.

"Whenever I declare, be it this year or next year, I'm going to want to know about NFL schemes," Russell offered of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme, one that places ample pressure on cornerbacks. "It is a blessing for me that we have this new defense installed because it is an NFL-style defense. What I learn now is what I am going to learn in the NFL."

Fear not Irish fans, if Russell meets his goal to be the best and bolts as a result, Notre Dame's defense -- and thus, it's end-season W-L record -- will rank among the nation's best next fall.

"I've developed into a player now," said Russell, now 5'11" and 190-plus pounds. "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."

Position of Strength

Notre Dame's perceived problems up front (a decided lack of depth on the defensive line) and at the defense's second level (Jaylon Smith plus…?), and perhaps at safety (2013 struggles are well documented) don't project to infiltrate the team's suddenly strong cornerback position.

A trio of competitors are on hand to augment Russell: 5th-year Florida transfer Cody Riggs and the sophomore pair of Cole Luke and Devin Butler. Senior safety Matthias Farley will help the position in a nickel role as well. Riggs matches Russell with 26 career starts while Farley has notched 19 of his own.

The unit is diverse, deep, and according to its kingpin, ready to compete vs. anything the 2014 slate presents.

"I think we're going to be a freaky athletic back end for sure in that secondary," Russell offered. "A lot of our young guys played a lot (in 2013) and I'm coming back my third year starting. We're going to have a lot of experience along the back this year…I think we're going to be a damn good secondary."

Good, great, or goats, the cornerbacks will be the epicenter of VanGorder's multiple schemes.

"My mindset, especially in today's game, is to take more and more control on defense by being more aggressive, and it starts out there (at cornerback)," VanGorder noted. "That's where you start your decisions as a coach.

"Can we hold up out there? If you've got a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that's a huge advantage. That makes sense to all of us. But you can't just do it to do it."

Russell has tunnel vision to achieve VanGorder's desired end.

"I'm going to continue to work on my press coverage and my man coverage," he said at spring's conclusion. "It's about repetition, repetition and repetition because I know I've got the skills. I am not trying to get too much faster or stronger. Playing corner is all about technique and you are playing chess against the receiver -- you have to know his moves and he has to know yours.

"At the end of the day you just have to dominate your opponent. I also want to work on the mental aspect, and understanding situational football like what you do 3rd and 5 vs. 2nd and 7."

Russell likewise realizes one cornerback can't do it alone.

"I've been to a national championship game," he said. "People that are younger can look up to me. They have stuff to look up to so they can trust it. They can look up to me and listen to me and we can work together as a unit.

"I'm trying to be the old grandpa, basically. Teach them what I've learned. I was a raw talent when I first got here. I listened to (secondary) coach (Kerry) Cooks and (linebackers, former secondary) coach (Bob) Elliott and they developed me into what I am today. Playing against (former USC All-Americans) Marqise Lee and Robert Woods -- just passing on those experiences and try to have my teammates feed off that.

No Irish player has started more games. No Irish player boasts more confidence. And no Irish player is more likely to lead his unit than is Russell.

What about leading the team as a whole?

"I wouldn't mind having the 'C' on the chest," Russell said of a potential captaincy as a true junior in 2013. "That looks kind of nice.

"I'm going to lead regardless."

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