"If I was a Notre Dame fan, I'd be thinking, 'Oh my goodness. Do we have a secondary that can keep us in these games against the real guys?'"
- CBS commentator Gary Danielson, September 1, Dublin, Ireland
Danielson's comment was directed at a freshly roasted freshman named Keivarae Russell, a high school running back who first began tutoring as a cornerback in July, 2012, roughly 40 days prior to Notre Dame's season-opening kickoff vs. Navy across the pond.
Russell was beaten in man coverage -- 25 yards down the post for Navy's only touchdown of the day. Fitting, as it was likewise the only touchdown allowed by the precocious defender in 2012.
"You have to be arrogant and have a short memory at defensive back," said Russell shortly after accepting his award as Notre Dame's defensive newcomer of the year last week. "I learned that after that touchdown in the Navy game. I was hurting. Bennett (Jackson) came up to me and said, 'Man, pick your head up, let's go. We have more football to play.'
"(Cornerbacks) coach (Kerry) Cooks and Manti (Te'o) came up to me laughing saying, 'We have a long season, let's go, don't worry about that one play.'"
"After that, throughout the season, whenever I made a mistake or missed a tackle I'd just say, 'Let's go, next play.'"
Russell became the first true freshman to start the season-opener at cornerback in program history that day, not that factoids and trivia matter much to the gregarious, newly minted Freshmen All-American.
"I've been told that, but it doesn't go through my mind at all. It doesn't register, to be the first freshman," he said. "I (didn't) come here to be the first freshman to start. I just came here to make plays for this team; hopefully enough to win the game."
Russell finished with two interceptions and four passes defended playing a preponderance of zone coverage. The latter is illustrated in his 50 tackles which ranks fifth on the team but third among secondary players.
"I wasn't a freshman after the first game, I had to grow up real quick," said Russell. "You can't use the excuse of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. You see all these big-time freshmen playing and you see some seniors not playing as well as freshmen.
"When I first got here I was using excuses during camp but I grew out of that really soon," he admitted. "They offered me a scholarship because I was one of the best in the country so I had to show why."
Seven for Six
Notre Dame allowed just seven passing touchdowns in 2012 -- a whopping 16 fewer than the secondary surrendered in 2011.
Of the seven, the true freshman Russell was victimized just once. Though coverages aren't always decipherable on a TV tape, below is a breakdown of the seven passing scores yielded by the Irish in 2012.
Navy: At the outset of his second career half as a cornerback, Russell allowed Navy's Shan Lynch inside position in press coverage on a 25-yard post route, surrendering the first and only score of his freshman season. Post safety Jamoris Slaughter took two false steps forward as a result of Navy's play-action and Russell had no chance to recover.
Purdue #1: With less than 15 seconds remaining in the opening half, Purdue quarterback Robert Marve hit motion wide receiver Antavian Edison for a 3-yard score as the Irish defense failed to adjust to the sprint-action toward the right front pylon. Either cornerback Bennett Jackson should have audibled to stay outside against Edison's motion to his side, or trailing cornerback Jalen Brown (in an impossible man-coverage assignment) had to avoid getting lost in traffic and several rub (picks) to track the speedy Edison. Communication and an adjustment was needed pre-snap but was missed by the Irish back seven early in the season.
Purdue #2: Trailing 17-10 and facing 4th and 10 from the Irish 15-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, Purdue quarterback Caleb Terbush finds slot receiver Antavian Edison for a stutter-step and burst to the post for a 15-yard score. Edison beat inside 'backer Carlo Calabrese inside and backup safety Matthias Farley offered help outside instead of to the post -- easy pitch and catch for Edison vs. a 255-pound 'backer who should have had help over the top.
Brigham Young #1: 263 game minutes had passed since Purdue's score -- the last vs. the Irish entering Week Seven vs. the Cougars. Aligned with 3 defenders vs. 2 receivers on the left side, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, linebacker Dan Fox, and Matthias Farley all bit on a simple out route to the front pylon. Russell and Fox were correct in their bracket coverage responsibility, but Farley abandoned his backside zone as Cody Ross ran a simple "wrap" around around the end zone for an unmolested pattern and score.
Brigham Young #2: Tied at 7 in the second quarter, BYU was set up with 1st and Goal at the Irish 2-yard line. What followed was a beautifully designed play-action throw to tight end Kaneakua Friel for the score. The play-call clearly targeted Will 'backer Carlo Calabrese who bit on the run fake before recognizing Friel slipping behind him on a short cross. Replay appeared to show the pass trapped against the turf but the touchdown was upheld.
Pittsburgh: Already leading 10-6, Panthers tight end J.P. Holtz scored from 9 yards out to extend the Panthers lead to 13 early in the third quarter. Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri used a run fake to pull strong side linebacker Danny Spond two steps forward as Holtz slipped inside the Irish junior 'backer and down the seam for an easy score. Sunseri's play-action also caught Manti Te'o, who broke forward to stop the run, and Calabrese who was caught guarding empty space inside.
Whether the fit was Te'o's or Spond's, or Calabrese's job to drop into coverage was unclear. Each was fooled by the run-fake for the second time in as many plays with Holtz the beneficiary of both.
USC: Again aligned with three defenders vs. two receivers, Trojans star Robert Woods ran a post from outside right for a 12-yard score. His inside burst beat Jackson, though it was Motta -- who appeared to have inside responsibility, who was sucked up as a slotted Marqise Lee ran a short hitch vs. Danny Spond. (In fairness to Motta and the scheme, it was likely the latter was told to contain Lee over the top of the 243-pound Spond as well.) The final passing score allowed by the Irish was a matter of two great receivers beating three very good defenders.
Note: Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, Oklahoma, Boston College, and Wake Forest did not hit for passing scores vs. the Irish. MSU, UM, Miami, Stanford, BC, and Wake Forest failed to score a single touchdown while Oklahoma rushed for one.
Adjustments Elsewhere as Well
Russell never played cornerback in high school, just "some safety" he said. But while turning and chasing standout receivers or reading a combo route in the flat proved challenging, it was nothing compared to the adjustment that awaited in the classroom.
"In order to survive in the classroom you need a great support system, especially in a school like this, as hard as this school is, they're going to challenge you academically and athletically," said Russell, a student-athlete who served as president of the student council at Mariner High School (Everett, WA).
"The fact that I have people around me to push me through my academics -- I couldn't' do it alone. I worked hard in high school but high school and college are different worlds. The fact that I have people pushing me to get my work done; making sure that I have my essays turned in on time, making sure that I'm having a great day in general. That helps me to want to be the best.
"I knew it was going to be tough, but the fact that they graduate 98 percent put a smile on my face. That showed that no matter how hard it is, the support system is great."
Russell cites his support system of Cooks and Jackson -- also a converted offensive player -- as the key to his on field development.
"Playing DB you have to have an arrogant mindset, you have to," said Russell. "Bennett and I go into games that way. He enforced that in my mind. You have to have a short memory."
He and Jackson needed short memories in the season-finale in Los Angeles against rival USC, easily the toughest test for the cornerback pair in 2012.
"When I went against (Robert) Woods and (Marqise) Lee that's how it was," Russell offered. "I looked at them in the eyes and said, 'I'm going to beat you guys. I don't care if you're ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country. That's what coach (Cooks) instilled in me. Just go out every play and say 'I'm going to win.'"
Russell won enough that day (an interception vs. three pass interference penalties) and for his defense in 2012 to help the Irish finish 12-0, ranked No. 1, and with just seven passing scores allowed. That's one fewer than the 1988 national champion Irish surrendered, and the lowest at the program since the 1982 Irish yielded the same -- vs. 50 fewer pass attempts.
In other words, Danielson's season-opening question has been sufficiently answered.