For a young man of many words, KeiVarae Russell’s simple “I’m back” Instagram will be the briefest statement from the affable cornerback from Washington over his final seven months at Notre Dame.
As detailed extensively in Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson’s interview with his “handlers” in the great Northwest last month, Russell has epitomized the way one would expect a “Notre Dame man” to respond to adversity.
Still maintaining his innocence as it relates to the academic misconduct accusation that threw a web of suspicion around him and four other Irish football players, Russell attacked the process of returning to Notre Dame with the same fervor he approached his crash course in cornerback play as a true-freshman while making the transition from offense to defense.
Russell’s return, coupled with former four-star recruit Cole Luke’s development in Russell’s absence, gives the Irish an opportunity to put forth one of the more dynamic one-two cornerback punches in the land in 2015.
They say that a secondary is only as good as its pass rush, and getting after the quarterback was not the strong suit of the Irish defense in ‘14. Even with an effective Luke (four interceptions, 11 passes broken up, 15 passes defended) and fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs (pre- mid-season injury) on the field, the Irish were among the lower one-third nationally in yards per attempt (84th), completion percentage (86th), pass-defense efficiency rating (86th) and touchdown passes (95th) while ranking in the bottom 40 percent in passing yardage per game (77th) and sacks (70th).
One pass-defense stat in which the Irish excelled was interceptions. Their 16 picks tied for 15th nationally, and the players who accounted for 14 of those picks are back in 2015.
Throw a primed Russell into the mix and what should be an improved pass rush just by sheer numbers up front. Add considerably more playing experience to the equation. Factor in a greater comfort zone the second time through in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. Those lower-echelon defensive pass numbers should adjust accordingly.
Plus, one can’t fully measure the value of having Russell’s enthusiasm and leadership on a defense that needs a little bit of everything to make the strides necessary after allowing 40 points per game over the final eight.
HEGARTY A DUCK
Everett Golson’s decision to take his fifth year of eligibility to Florida State received considerably more attention, but former interior offensive lineman Matt Hegarty made a similar choice months earlier, and finally landed in Eugene, Ore., where he’ll be a member of the highly-successful Ducks program this fall with the inside track to start at center.
Hegarty’s decision to leave Notre Dame was similar and different from Golson’s.
Similar from the standpoint that he was not guaranteed a full-time spot at Notre Dame after starting the last 11 games of the season, including the final 10 at the center position. Different in that Hegarty wanted to play center, not guard, because he believes he’s a better fit at that position and has a greater future at that spot on the next level.
Hegarty made an excellent choice in terms of fit for the Oregon offense. The Ducks play offense at such a rapid pace that it’s as if they’re trying to avoid someone stealing the football as it’s sitting on the turf between plays.
Oregon plays at a breakneck pace, and Hegarty plays exactly how you’d expect a hurry-up, fast-paced, spread-offense lineman to play. We often marveled at Hegarty in the weekly Tale of the Tape pieces last fall for his downfield hustle. Week after week, Hegarty would be seen 20 or 30 yards downfield, helping up a Notre Dame runner after the play.
While it’s a blow to the Notre Dame ego to lose Hegarty and Golson with each possessing a year of eligibility, credit both for making sound, reasoned choices for 2015.
Golson should thrive in Florida State’s offense with a corps of talented if not completely proven receivers, particularly since head coach Jimbo Fisher has established a reputation for turning out first-round draft picks at the quarterback position. Three Seminole quarterbacks – Christian Ponder in 2011, E.J. Manuel in 2013 and James Winston in 2015 – have gone in the first round of the NFL draft in the last five seasons.
Some say that Golson is jumping out of the cauldron (Brian Kelly) and hopping into the frying pan (Fisher) in terms of head-coaching personalities. But if Kelly had developed three first-round quarterback draft picks in the last five years, chances are Golson would have tolerated the clash of wills for another year in the Irish program.
ISHAQ WILLIAMS: STEP ONE
And now, for the next part of the story.
On Monday, Notre Dame defensive end Ishaq Williams received written notice from Notre Dame’s Committee of Readmission at his home in Brooklyn that the former five-star recruit was welcome to return to school after a two-semester suspension.
That officially made his trip back to Notre Dame a couple of days earlier worthwhile.
And now, for the rest of the story.
Twenty-seven credit hours short of earning his undergraduate degree as a philosophy major in the College of Arts and Letters, Williams can participate in summer school, put a dent in what is left of his academic workload, and then easily graduate with a modest number of credits remaining for the fall and spring semesters.
Williams’ father – Shaun Williams – told II’s Pete Sampson that his son is prepared to serve in whatever capacity necessary to contribute to a national-championship effort on the field and secure the highly-coveted degree in the classroom.
Will Williams do it as a scholarship player or a walk-on? That is the last piece to the puzzle, at least in terms of procedure. The final chapter will be about how much Williams is called upon to contribute to the football cause.
The question is a matter of fit, as in the 85-scholarship limit. As it is right now, there isn’t room for Williams, which would be atypical of Notre Dame’s practice through the years of ensuring that one of its own successfully completes his undergraduate degree on scholarship.
The situation, of course, is rather unique, and from a depth chart standpoint, the Irish have Isaac Rochell – now an established run-stopping defensive end who reaped the benefits of Williams’ suspension -- with promising sophomore Grant Blankenship and red-shirt freshman Jonathan Bonner behind Rochell.
On the right side, the Irish have the one-two punch of senior Romeo Okwara and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti with raw red-shirt freshman Jhonny Williams and red-shirt sophomore Doug Randolph.
Which all leads to more questions.
Do the Irish need Ishaq Williams, who has yet to show a consistent performance in an Irish uniform? Would the return of Williams allow Blankenship to preserve a year of eligibility after playing sparingly before he was physically ready in ’14? Would Blankenship be amenable to such a move?
What is Notre Dame’s obligation to Williams scholarship-wise? Does Chase Hounshell – a fifth-year candidate who established himself as a viable blocking option at tight end this spring after an injury-marred run along the defensive line – deserve that spot more than Williams?
These questions can be answered, at least in part, by Williams putting forth a great effort during summer conditioning, an effort and level of enthusiasm that some would suggest he never reached during his first three years in the program.
If Williams finally can tap into the potential that exists within that God-sent 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame, this has the makings of a great comeback story, one that could benefit him and Notre Dame on several levels.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
The news of former Notre Dame outside linebacker Prince Shembo’s killing of Denicia Williams’ Yorkshire terrier on April 19 as a result of a blunt force trauma in and of itself has nothing to do with the Lizzy Seeburg case.
It also doesn’t necessarily correlate with the fact he was suspended for a football game during his senior year at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, N.C. for “something he shouldn’t have done,” as described by his prep coach, which reportedly involved a physical confrontation with an Ardrey Kell employee.
But it does add another layer to the less-than-flattering bio that now reads “former Atlanta Falcons football player” after Shembo turned himself in to the Gwinnett County (Ga.) jail on May 29 and subsequently was released by the Falcons’ organization.
Shembo reportedly claimed that when he attempted to put the dog in its cage, the dog bit him and his reaction led to the animal’s inadvertent death when the outside linebacker-turned-punter launched the football-sized canine.
We weren’t there, so none of us knows exactly how and why Shembo reacted the way he did. And in two of these three incidents in which he was involved, death has resulted, which is a .666 batting average that no one wants on the back of their trading card. In all three incidents, he was accused of behaving in an unacceptable manner.
So now what does the NFL do? Will the fourth-round draft choice ever play professional football again? Should he be denied an opportunity to continue his career at some point after a step-by-step program that, at the very least, requires anger management treatment for his issues beyond the gridiron?
Those in the media that spent four years around Shembo during his college days at Notre Dame wouldn’t have suspected this. And yet, that access provided just a blink-of-the-eye glimpse of the real person who portrayed himself as a man of God from a family with a deep faith.
Every one deserves a second chance, even in a world today that passes judgment and imposes a sentence well before all the facts have been gathered. By the same token, a pattern of ill-advised choices has been established, choices that will taint his image for a very, very long time.