CULVER, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell is more worried about learning to trust his instincts again than knocking off rust as he returns to the football field after a season-long banishment.
“It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to drive. Stop hesitating. Start doing what you do, you’ve been playing this game,’” Russell said.
Russell was held out of practices last August while being investigated for possible academic dishonesty before eventually being suspended from the university for the year. He is still waiting to be cleared to play by the NCAA, although coach Brian Kelly is allowing him to practice because he believes Russell has done everything required to be eligible.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior said he never seriously considered leaving Notre Dame.
“I feel like it’d be a coward move if I just left. I feel like I had stuff I had to finish as a leader and as a player. I had to come back. It was an easy decision,” he said. “Because I felt like I didn’t finish. I didn’t show enough.”
Another reason for coming back is he believes the Irish have a talented team that can make a run at a national title.
“I want to be a champion,” he said. “I want to win a ring.”
The Everett, Washington native was recruited to Notre Dame as a running back, but moved to cornerback before his freshman season started after Lo Wood sustained a season-ending Achilles tendon injury, leaving the Irish depleted at cornerback. Russell started every game as a freshman on a defense that led the Irish to the national championship game against Alabama. He’s started all 26 games he’s played in and was considered a candidate for captaincy last season.
Russell was fifth on the team with 51 tackles in 2013 and led the Irish with eight passes broken up. He also had an interception and a fumble recovery. Kelly said Russell was playing his best football at the end of that season, had a great spring practice and expectations for last season were lofty. He said those high hopes are still there.
“He has a presence. He communicates loudly. I love that. And it’s very positive, extremely positive,” Kelly said.
Russell said it was hard watching last season as the Irish began 6-0 before losing five of their final six regular-season games.
“When they were 6-0, it was a bittersweet moment. You’re happy, but you’re like, ‘Dang, you’re not out there with them celebrating.’ Then, when they’re losing, it’s like, ‘Dang, could I have helped that?’ So I had mixed emotions,” he said. “But it’s one of those things you didn’t want the guilt to get to you.”
Russell wants to earn a leadership role instead of forcing it.
“It’s about letting guys come to me instead of trying to force myself on these guys,” Russell said.
Russell described returning to practice last week as a surreal feeling, saying he was just happy to be back competing with teammates again.
“I’ve got to convince myself it’s time. It’s time to play football again. This ain’t a dream,” he said.