Lofty Goals

Lofty Goals

Junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell believes he has the right side of the Irish defense on lock down. And for him, that's not nearly enough.

Left, right, slot.

Former Michigan cornerback and future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson was able to do it. And, coupled with time as a receiver and a few oh-so timely punt returns, Woodson rode that unique role to the 1997 Heisman Trophy.

Former Irish standout Bobby Taylor did it for Lou Holtz's 1993 Irish, too. Ditto Shane Walton for Notre Dame's playmaking defense of 2002. More recently, Robert Blanton dabbled in the challenge as well.

Now entering his third season as a starter,Keivarae Russell believes he can do it too -- that is: cover the opponent's best wide receiver, no matter where said target aligns in the formation. Russell also knows he's not yet reached that level of play.

"I know I can do it, I just know I'm fully not there. I'm (at right cornerback) to be a lockdown corner, I'm not there to follow the guy everywhere yet, but I know I can be," said Russell. "I can go to one side and whoever comes to my side (shut-down) -- but you're not going to get the best receiver every play. That's easier. It's difficult to follow the best receiver to the slot, because the slot is different than the outside receiver. To cover him in the slot, right side, left side, that's what I want to get to, and I know I'm not there yet. What is it, August 4? I have until August 30. That's a lot of time."

Russell spent the bulk of Saturday morning's practice on the sidelines, a mild (undisclosed) leg "tweak" that head coach Brian Kelly blamed on overuse of his team's best cover man.

"We were just being cautious, obviously, as you can imagine," Kelly said.

Discretion is indeed the better part of valor here. Notre Dame needs Russell and at least three of his fellow cornerbacks to hit the field in good health each Saturday this fall. The Irish will play press coverage and off-man coverage often. Tired legs and/or mild strains would likely equate to touchdowns scored against.

"I know during the games this season we're gonna play a lot of press man," said Russell. "Even if (defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder) tells us to play off, I feel like I should press. I want guys to know I'm there. I want people to feel my presence each and every route they run, five-yard curl to a post. I want them to feel my presence. If they catch the ball, they catch the ball. But it's not gonna be easy. I want them to walk back to the huddle like, 'Damn, that guy is all up in my pocket.'"

More confident that most, Russell does not lack self-awareness. He's been beaten when it mattered on game days and also in this camp. He know it'll happen again. It's the nature of the game when you're on an island facing modern passing games.

"My technique is key," Russell said of his chief area for improvement. "My confidence (isn't an issue). Whoever they say to go against, I'm not scared. That's not anything. But it's every day doing the same thing. Don't have a good day here, a bad day there, you have to be consistent. Great day, great day, great day. And even my 'okay day' has to be a somewhat good day. I have to get to the point where my technique is flawless, where people go against me and say, 'Oh damn, him again? This side again?

"Perfecting every part of my game. Not just press man, but off-man. When they're in bunches I have to play off. Three-way bunch, spread out, I have to play man-to-man that way. I'm doing it every day."

The pursuit of perfection at cornerback is futile. Russell will lose battles this season as will every collegiate cornerback. The best, and that's what Russell aspires to be, will win more than their share and most that matter. Russell believes if he has a great season, his defense and the Irish as a whole will as well.

And his goal is to lead them to it and through it.

"If they put that 'C' on my chest I'll be honored, but I'm going to figure out a (leadership) role for me, regardless," Russell said when asked about potential team captaincy. "Whether it's being that vocal guy, whether it's being enthusiastic, trying to get everybody going. That's me. I'm not going to change or get down if I'm not a captain, I really don't care. I'm a junior, I have a chance to be a captain next year if that happens. If it happens it happens. If it doesn't, let's still win games."

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