SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- KeiVarae Russell's heard all the hype about Notre Dame's defensive line. The sophomore cornerback knows just how good Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day are.
He thinks Notre Dame's defensive backs can be better.
"We really believe whoever we go against, we’re going to be the catalyst of the defense," Russell said. "Last year, everybody talked so much about the D-line, but we think we’re going to be the strong point this year.
"Everybody knows our D-line is one of the best, if not the best, in the country … those guys are always going to be good, but at the end of the day you need a great secondary to really have a championship team. And we believe we’re a championship defensive back corps."
Russell sees a unit around him with far more depth and experience than it had in 2012. Still, last year's Irish secondary wasn't bad, even with a first-time cornerback in Russell, a recently-converted safety in Matthias Farley and Bennett Jackson, who played injured and was a first-time starter himself.
While Russell held his own last year, he still struggled against bigger, physical, athletic receivers -- like Alabama's Amari Cooper. Competing against the class of the SEC opened Russell's eyes as to where he needed to improve in the offseason.
"Those guys, you saw how strong they were. Alabama, all the teams they did play -- Auburn, Tennessee, all the SEC schools are built on strength and speed. So it was a different animal for me," Russell said. "That was the biggest thing for me, building that strength to go against those guys."
Russell's added 12 pounds to his frame since the BCS Championship, and has already seen the benefits while going up against Notre Dame's stronger wide receivers in practice. There's no debating he'll start this fall, even with Lo Wood returning to the fold -- coach Brian Kelly put to rest any questions about that this week.
"KeiVarae's the starter," Kelly said Monday. "I just think confidence in the position, he was a first-time player at that position last year. He knows the position very well, his technique has improved immensely, he's stronger physically, a lot more confidence -- all those things that come with being a returning starter."
Russell admitted there's a different mentality that comes with being a starter, although he said he's not thinking like he's won any battles.
"You want to be the starter, of course. It’s a different feeling -- no matter if there’s a rotation or not, you want to say that you started," he explained. "I’m not even going to lie about that one. Somebody asks you if you’re going to play, it’s a different feeling than 'yeah, I’m going to play' or 'yeah, I’m going to start.' It’s a different feeling, it’s a different mindset from how you study film. It changes everything, it’s a different mindset."
Russell had two interceptions and broke up two more passes as a freshman. Those aren't elite numbers by any stretch -- Alabama's Dee Milliner's 22 passes defended tied for the most among FBS players, for example, while Jackson had eight passes defended -- but he feels with the confidence, experience and strength he's gained, he can get to that level.
And that doesn't just extend to himself. Russell feels he, and Notre Dame's secondary, have moved on from just trying to hold their own.
"Last year, it was we were going in to play, and now we’re going in to dominate," Russell said. "That’s the difference."