Like a caged lion, KeiVarae Russell is pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, waiting for the iron bars to be unlocked, allowing him to run free in the game he loves.
That’s actually how Russell feels on two levels.
One, he hasn’t played since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl following his season-long suspension in 2014. Two, his return coincides with an aggressively-applied defense under coordinator Brian VanGorder that bears little-to-no resemblance to the game Russell played as a sophomore.
“Oh, for sure,” said Russell, when asked if he prefers VanGorder’s approach to former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s patient, keep-the-ball-in-front-of-you philosophy. “You make more plays. You’re susceptible to getting beat. It’s mano y mano all day and sometimes you might not have safety help. So there are pros and cons.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing or where your help is, you can get beat all day. If your fundamentals are right and your details are on point, you can make so many plays in this defense.”
The Irish cornerbacks enter Year Two of the VanGorder regime at Notre Dame, although Russell has lost time to make up. Back in 2012, when Russell was a true freshman and cornerback Cole Luke was still a senior in high school, the converted running back out of Everett, Wash. thrived. He stabilized an Irish secondary and dramatically filled a hole left by the pre-season injury to Lo Wood.
Russell developed into one of the more exciting underclass cornerbacks in the country by the end of the 2013 season, intercepting a pass and breaking up three in the Rutgers game alone.
Much has changed since then.
“In Diaco’s defense, I played a lot of soft Cover 2,” Russell said. “Diaco’s defense wasn’t built for the corners to make an extreme amount of plays. It was built to not allow big plays, and that’s what allowed us to go to the national championship.
“They had to go 15 plays. Not many teams go 15 straight plays and constantly get yards. That was our philosophy.”
Luke – who played in both systems during his first two years in the program – has lived the change in philosophy, one that has taken on an even more proactive approach in the second year of the system.
“It’s super aggressive,” said Luke, who tied for the team-lead in interceptions with four in Russell’s absence. “It’s not as relaxed as before.
“I don’t want to talk down the old scheme. They’re both great schemes and we went to a ‘natty’ with the first one. This one is a lot more aggressive, more pro style, so as far as playing corner goes, you’re pretty much on an island 24/7.”
It’s that island that most cornerbacks crave, including Russell, who believes VanGorder’s approach fits his style of play as well as his demeanor.
“Neither was better or worse, but for me, I like this defense because I want to get in people’s grill,” Russell said. “You (have to) beat me. If you’re going to score, I don’t want you to keep catching balls. If I’m on you and you catch a deep fade, back shoulder, something crazy, I’m going to clap my hands and live for another down. But you’re going to have to do it again.”
Luke had a different mindset when VanGorder arrived.
“It depends upon what kind of player you are,” Luke said. “At first, I was an ‘off’ guy. I liked to play a little zone. Now that I’ve gotten accustomed to this defense, I like both, but I’m a man guy now.”
Russell is a bit of an anomaly in VanGorder’s defense. On one hand, he’s known for his patience at cornerback. You won’t see Russell reacting to every little twitch by a receiver. There’s no wasted movement in his approach prior to the time it’s required to latch on to a receiver.
“I try to play in my cylinder,” Russell said. “(A receiver) can stutter-(step) as much as he wants. If you’re not reacting, he has to either go wide or too far inside. If he goes through me, that’s easy. I’m just going to go inside and you’re not going to go anywhere. I’m going to make you run through me or to make a wide-cylinder release.”
Russell went through an emotional upheaval last season during his suspension. With that comes the maturity of a conscientious individual who sees his edict through a different tint of glass.
His role has expanded considerably since 2013, not only in terms of straight pass coverage from the cornerback position, but now – in the aftermath of freshman Shaun Crawford’s season-ending knee injury – Russell is Notre Dame’s nickel in its extra-defensive back package.
“It’s more aggressive, but you also have to understand where your help is coming from and where the pressure is coming from,” Russell said. “We didn’t see much pressure with Coach Diaco, so you didn’t have to worry about where it was coming from.”
Russell’s repertoire has expanded. His return to the college game has given him a full menu of techniques that should prepare him well for the next level of football, but still has him in transition mode entering the ’15 season.
“Nickel is conceptually hard for me,” Russell said. “I’m not worried about playing man. Now it’s just trying to understand the game conceptually.
“I’ll play nickel, move back to cornerback, go back to nickel and then have understand what the safety is doing in order to know what I’m doing. I’m not worried about space. Space is my friend.”
Look for Russell to blitz off the edge more, too, which is another aspect of the VanGorder defense seldom utilized at Notre Dame from 2010-13.
Come Saturday night, the unbridled enthusiasm that has been pent up for 614 days since his last live encounter on the gridiron will come rushing out.
“Coming back to this, it’s like a kid in a candy story,” Russell said. “It’s a surreal feeling to be back, but this ain’t a dream.”