SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There's no player Notre Dame would miss more this coming fall than cornerback KeiVarae Russell if he's ultimately found guilty of academic improprieties and dismissed from the university.
Russell, a junior from Everett, Wa., is one of four players who have been removed from team activities while Notre Dame investigates potential academic dishonesty involving several students. For now, Russell — along with wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, linebacker Kendall Moore and defensive end Ishaq Williams — is still welcome in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for meals and training. He just can't practice or, if the investigation persists for at least another two weeks, play in a game.
Coach Brian Kelly cautioned that none of the players implicated in the investigation have yet to be found guilty, let alone jettisoned from the program and university. But the fifth-year Irish coach spoke in the past tense about each player and said the team is moving on without them.
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"You don't replace KeiVarae Russell," Kelly said. "He's one of the best corners we've had here in quite some time.
"But we'll find a way."
During Saturday's practice, that way meant elevating sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler to the first team defense alongside fifth-year graduate student and Florida transfer Cody Riggs. Luke was a four-star member of Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class, while Butler earned a three-star rating. Both players saw time in reserve roles as freshmen.
"We're going to have to get them up to speed quickly," Kelly said. "But you don't replace a guy like that."
Whether Luke and/or Butler have the physical strength and technique to jam opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and play man coverage remains to be seen. That's where Russell expected to excel in 2014 while playing more of an NFL-style defense under Brian VanGorder.
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Russell was the top guy in a secondary unit that looked to be the best in Notre Dame's defense. While Riggs, Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth are still around, losing Russell deals a major blow to a Notre Dame defense full of inexperienced players and question marks.
Kelly said he empathizes with Russell and his three teammates, but added his focus now is getting the guys he has in practice prepared for Aug. 30's season-opening game against Rice.
"You can't win taking shortcuts," Kelly said. "Our attention to detail is what we talk about all the time. So again, I feel for the four guys that are going through this process and we wish them the best, but my focus and attention has to be on the football team right at this time."