KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame's Most Important Defensive Player Against Alabama
Tomorrow the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will take on Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide for the BCS National Championship in Sun Life Stadium.
Alabama is currently a 9.5 point favorite and expected to use brute strength and its wealth of big-game experience to end the Irish's perfect season.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding the obvious matchups: Alabama's offensive line against the Notre Dame defensive front, running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy against Irish linebackers Manti Te'o and Prince Shembo and Everett Golson's huge role in propelling Irish hopes.
Yet the most important single player wearing a gold helmet come tomorrow night may be true freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
A year ago, Russell was an upper-level recruit out of Everett, WA.
He was recruited as a running back, where he was ranked as the 12th best running back nationally by Max Preps.
Russell entered camp as he had played for most of his offensive career, on the offensive side of the ball.
It was not until midway through fall camp, after the Irish secondary lost projected starters Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood to injuries between the spring game and the opening of the season, that Russell began learning his new position with only three weeks remaining. In that time, he managed to rise to the top of the depth chart over sophomore Josh Atkinson.
Opposite first-year starter and fellow offensive transplant Bennett Jackson and with only a smattering of inexperienced underclassmen behind experienced safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, the Irish secondary was expected to be a weak point on an otherwise stout defense.
Surprisingly, even after Slaughter was lost for the season only two weeks into the campaign, the secondary performed better than expected and helped allow the Irish to hold 11 of 12 opponents to under 20 points.
Against the Crimson Tide, Russell will prove key.
While Alabama's strength and primary strategy is to pound up the front, it also loves to throw the nine route—the deep ball on the outside of play action which usually leaves a cornerback one-on-one against Amari Cooper or Kenny Bell (if he plays).
With the Irish's interior efforts so firmly concentrated on bringing down Alabama's big ball-carriers, the safeties will be more concerned with run support than over-the-top pass support.
Bennett Jackson is widely perceived as Notre Dame's better corner, and Russell will be singled out and targeted.
Russell has come through in big moments this season, but he has also been susceptible to the big-gain deep ball.
Russell has the speed necessary to be a lockdown corner, but he is still gaining experience. He must remember to keep the play in front of him and wrap and drive through a tackle.
And if all else fails, remember that in college football a pass-interference penalty is only 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.
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