Notre Dame: Cooks' challenge spurs Russell's growth

Notre Dame: Cooks' challenge spurs Russell's growth
April 24, 2014, 1:30 pm
Share This Post

KeiVarae Russell lined up across from Rutgers wide receiver Brandon Coleman, who had burned Bennett Jackson three times early on in December's Pinstripe Bowl. "Game's over, big guy," Russell told him. "You're on the wrong side now."

Coleman didn't have a catch the rest of the afternoon, while Russell picked off a pass and had three other pass breakups.

For Russell, the Pinstripe Bowl was the culmination of a long road back from the worst game of his career -- Notre Dame's 41-30 loss to Michigan. Russell looked like someone still figuring out how to play the position that night in Ann Arbor, despite holding his own there as a greenhorn cornerback in 2012.

[MORE: Notre Dame confident in its offensive line depth]

After the game, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks made a cut-up of of Russell's mishaps against Michigan (quite a few of which involved Jeremy Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns), and intertwined those in a tape with some of Russell's better moments from 2012. And Cooks' challenge was simple: Consistently play to your potential, and you can be a great cornerback.

"It was kind of a good and bad," Cooks said earlier this spring. "The good should be you consistently all the time, and this bad you should never put on tape, especially being here at Notre Dame, the most marketable place in college football since you're on national TV every Saturday. He bought into it, and I just challenged him to be an elite player consistently."

After the Pinstripe Bowl, Russell said he felt like a "full-blown corner" and that he thinks he can be the best cornerback in the country in 2014. He'll get to press more under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder -- the added physicality of which Cooks and VanGorder think will suit Russell well.

[RELATED: Notre Dame aiming to get more out of its running backs]

There's some substance to Russell's claim that he can be the best (or, at least, one of the best) corners in the country this coming fall, given how much his coaches rave about his talent and work ethic. Russell's not to that elite level yet, but that's the challenge from Cooks heading into summer workouts.

"There's not a wide receiver in the country, in my opinion -- I've been doing this 13 years -- that he shouldn't be able to compete with," Cooks said. "That's just how strongly I feel about him, and what I've seen and the guys that I've coached that are playing in the NFL, he's by far and beyond the best from a talent level."