Irish Stars Go Head-to-Head

Two of the nation’s best players at their position do battle each day at the LaBar Practice Complex. One of them wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain early. That’s since changed.

Future Notre Dame foe Clemson has a similar situation when Mackensie Alexander and Mike Williams square off. The same holds true for Oct. 17 campus visitors USC with Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith working one-on-one. (Or if Jackson could attempt to cover himself, that would qualify as well.)

And in the Sunshine State, the likes of Jalen Ramsey and Travis Rudoph (FSU) and Vernon Hargreaves and DeMarcus Robinson (UF) do battle, making one another better along the way.

That’s the case in South Bend this season where one of the nation’s best CB/WR matchups takes place daily on the LaBar Practice Fields. KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller take a backseat to no one – especially since the former has rounded back to form.

“You could tell he had been away from it,” said Fuller of his long-time friend. “It’s hard coming back after a year off. I can’t even picture doing that. He’s doing great now though. We’re back to those tough battles.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted Russell hadn’t held up his share of the bargain early. “There was a little too much clutching and grabbing, and I think a lot of that was when you're out of pads for a year, you can't duplicate by jumping on boxes,” Kelly said in reference to the highly publicized video of Russell leaping from a standing position onto a 42-inch high box.  

“You've got to put pads on and you've got to get out there. And he is a different player than he was when he got in here (early August) because he wasn't that good. Now he's back to where, ‘Okay, that's KeiVarae,’ you know? That's the guy that we remember.”

ROLE REVERSAL

The guy they remember was Notre Dame’s best defensive back the last time he took the field, December 28, 2013, in something called “The Pinstripe Bowl.” Russell starred when pitted against six-foot-six target Brandon Coleman, breaking up three passes and picking off another after Coleman – now a member of the New Orleans Saints – had previously hit pay dirt on the opposite side of the field.

(Said Russell in the wake of that win: “I got across from him and said, ‘Here we go, big boy. It’s about to get real.’ That was fun.”)

At the time, Fuller was an afterthought – a freshman with six catches to his credit, though two of great impact: A 37-yarder for his first career grab (against current Minnesota Vikings corner Trae Waynes, no less) and later that season, his first career touchdown.

In both instances he ran away from his defender – a portent for future Irish foes.

“A guy like Will Fuller, you really don’t want to give too much space,” said Russell of his need to play press coverage against Notre Dame’s fastest man. “I can run with him, but I’m also stronger than him, I want to use hands at the line of scrimmage.”

Russell later admitted that no one on the team runs faster than Fuller – though he did include his own name among three that could give Fuller “a run for his money.”

Fuller appreciated the recognition – but didn’t return the pleasantry.

“I know (Shaun) Crawford is really fast,” said Fuller of Notre Dame’s freshman nickel, now out for the season after tearing his ACL. Breezy (Chris Brown). There are a lot of fast guys…but I wouldn’t put Kei in there though. Kei is not in that mix (smiling).”

LOCKED IN, READY TO LOCK ‘HORNS

Whether Russell or anyone else can catch Fuller is immaterial. There’s far more to the game and the battle within.

“I’m going against an elite receiver and I give him my best every day,” said Russell of his month-long matchup. “Being out a year and showing that I can still cover a guy like him, it shows I’m better than most corners.

“(The hardest part) is the mental battle – you want to get back to where you were. I knew how high my ceiling was and how close I was getting from being a ‘good’ corner to a great corner. I’m really close to where I was.”

Fuller is nowhere near where he was when Russell was lost for the season last August.

“I definitely didn’t see it either,” said Russell of Fuller’s breakout 2014 campaign. “Just being honest, even after DaVaris (Daniels) was part of my suspension, Will Fuller wasn’t the one that was supposed to step up. On paper it looked like Chris Brown, Corey Robinson…It was interesting to see the youngster step up and really play a role.

“Now I wasn’t seeing 15 (TD) either! But he became the man that wants to make a play at all times. You did see that fire in his eyes as a true freshman. He wanted to make a play every time he touched the ball (in practice). It finally was on display.”

As are the pair’s daily battles. Finally. Two of the team’s – and the nation’s best – head-to-head. 


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