KeiVarae Russell hadn’t played cornerback before coming to campus last August. And yet, as a true freshman, he wound up holding his own on a team that went 12-0 and earned a berth in the BCS Championship.
But Russell appears destined to lose his starting role in 2013, although it's not because he didn’t make enough strides in 2012. With Lo Wood set to return from a ruptured Achilles’, there doesn’t appear to be room for Russell atop Notre Dame’s depth chart.
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Bennett Jackson will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery in January, giving Russell an opportunity for more first-team reps over the next few weeks. But even without a starting spot appearing likely in the fall, Russell will play a valuable role behind Jackson and Wood, anchoring a group of backups with little experience.
Russell’s work ethic was praised by cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks during the 2012 season, and combined with an abundance of talent, he could be an impact player for the Irish in the future.
“Some guys are just natural with feet and flipping their hips, and gifted athletic ability,” Cooks explained. “So he was one of those guys that I identified from day one, just having the ability to play corner and be able to do the jobs, to move laterally, to cover one-on-ones. You knew that once you saw him running around, that if he was willing to, he could be special.”
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Jackson also offered his thoughts on Russell’s strengths: “Knowledge, general I.Q. of the defense in general, learning tendencies and formations. He's been really coachable, so that's probably benefitted him the most.”
But for all the strides Russell made in 2012, he still looked overmatched at times. A tandem of Jackson and Wood is, on paper, better than one involving Russell.
Barring an injury, fall 2014 is the target date for Russell’s return as a starting cornerback for Notre Dame. Between now and then, he’ll still play an important role, but he’ll also have an excellent opportunity to grow. That opportunity begins this spring.