SOUTH BEND, Ind. — KeiVarae Russell's growing pains were highlighted on a national stage two weeks ago, as the sophomore cornerback struggled with diminutive Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon (eight catches, 184 yards, three touchdowns) in Notre Dame's 41-30 loss.
Russell held his own last fall as a first-time cornerback, playing well but also benefitting from a fearsome pass rush and the presence of Manti Te'o in the middle. Russell's on far more of an island in terms of the spotlight this year, and his first three games have served as a reminder of how steep the learning curve still is.
But for Russell, the first quarter of the season has taught him something else.
"I learned that the sky's the limit," he said. "I have all the ability, all the potential in the world to be great. But I learned I'm so young and I'm still not even close to where I want to be. That's what I really learned. I learned potential only goes so far."
Russell is cognizant of his strength and speed and believes he's more athletic than any receiver he's gone up against this year. But he's had to remind himself sometimes of his age and experience level, as he's still a sophomore who didn't play the position until he got to campus last summer.
The next step, Russell said, is to play smarter. That's why, in his estimation, Gallon burned him so much — the 5-foot-8, 187-pound receiver wasn't as athletic as him, but was far smarter on the field.
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Those smarts will come with experience, though Russell said the current gap between his skill and knowledge base isn't frustrating. Instead, it's exciting for him.
"This kind of humbles me to like, dude, I mean, I could be up there," Russell said. "I could be one of the great ones here."
Russell's not just looking to be one of the great cornerbacks at Notre Dame, though, seeing as he's tried to pick stuff up from watching some of the NFL's best cornerbacks. He's studied Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson but has focused the most on Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis.
"When you watch Revis, the patience it takes to play like him," Russell explained, "it gets to the point where I'm like, I don't know if I can be that patient."
It's all part of the learning process. Right now, Russell might know he has to be patient, but his instinct is to make the first move, whereas Revis waits for his target to show his hand first.
Russell graded out better in Week 3 against Purdue, coach Brian Kelly said, though it's worth noting Purdue's leading receiver when that game began had four catches in two games. But Russell's universally praised work ethic and upbeat attitude have Kelly encouraged about his cornerback's potential for progress.
"He's a very conscientious kid and wants to do well," Kelly said. "If you have those two things — if you have that and the athletic ability, we're going to continue to work with you."
Russell knows he has a ways to go before he'll be considered great, but said he's up for the challenge.
"It's a process, but I love the process," Russell said. "When I do get to that stage, I want to be able to say I worked for it. I want to get to that point where I'm like, it was tough, but I put the work in."