Notre Dame's defense is about to change.
After four years of stressing base concepts, solid fundamentals and point prevention under Bob Diaco, the Irish will look decidedly different under Brian VanGorder. Gone is the Cover 2 shell and the base 3-4 alignment. Here is a blitzing, attacking front seven and a back-end built around cover cornerbacks and a free safety playing center field.
All of which puts the focus onto junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
Notre Dame's most experienced defender, Russell has started all 26 games of his career. And he's also the most important defender on the roster as the Irish make a stark change in their defensive philosophy.
"The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes," defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks told The Observer's Mike Monaco in April. "We want to be on attack mode. The whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense.
"So everything that we do, it doesn’t mean that we’re all pressed 80 snaps a game, but we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical, and that whole mindset of challenge every route," Cooks added.
That mindset didn't exist the last four seasons under Diaco. While UConn's new head coach inherited a historically mediocre Irish defense and turned it into one of the ten best scoring defenses in the country over his four-year stretch, Notre Dame routinely allowed team's to throw the ball underneath their zone coverage, willing to give up five yards to avoid the big play.
That attitude is gone. And the transformation that began this spring has changed the mindset of Notre Dame's young defense.
But to successfully execute VanGorder's new vision, Notre Dame's secondary needs to be up to the task. For Russell, that means being the elite cornerback many are projecting him to be.
Russell was named to both the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy's watch lists, putting him in the defensive player of the year conversation.
Even though he's only played two seasons of cornerback in his football career, Russell might have the highest ceiling of any player draft eligible on the roster.
Now he's got to play like that.
He showed the talent in a surprising freshman season that had Russell in the starting lineup for all 13 games and ended with him on the FWAA's Freshman All-American team. But Russell's sophomore campaign started slowly and featured a high-profile blowup against one the Irish's biggest rivals.
Russell became a featured cast member in Jeremy Gallon's personal highlight film, on the wrong side of one too many big plays by Michigan's diminutive receiver. That's the type of game that NFL talent evaluators struggle to ignore.
But Russell finished the season with a bang, shutting down Rutgers' standout Brandon Coleman in the Pinstripe Bowl, breaking up three passes against the 6'6" receiver while collecting an interception as well.
Entering his junior season, Russell can't afford to have that kind of inconsistencies. He'll spend Saturdays likely locked on opponents No. 1 receiver, perhaps the most challenging gauntlet of any cornerback in the country.
Rice returns its two leading receivers, Jordan Taylor and Dennis Parks. Michigan's Devin Funchess will play wide receiver, presenting a unique challenge as a 6'5", 230-pounder.
Stanford's Ty Montgomery is among the nation's best receivers. So is Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, North Carolina's Ryan Switzer, Louisville's DeVante Parker and USC's Nelson Agholor. Florida State's Rashad Greene is no slouch, either.
(After the season, Russell may earn himself a vote for the Biletnikoff Award.)
That type of schedule and weekly challenge is why athletes come to Notre Dame. It's also a perfect test for a cornerback that's still just discovering what he's capable of doing, entering just his third season on the defensive side of the ball.
It's been a long time since Notre Dame had a true shutdown cornerback. In the last 20 years, Notre Dame has had only Bobby Taylor and Shane Walton earn consensus All-American awards at the position.
But that's the ceiling for Russell. After not playing to that level every game in 2013, Russell needs to be among the best in the country at a position that demands excellence in VanGorder's scheme.
Lofty aspirations? His position coach thinks anything's possible.
"KeiVarae Russell, you can ask him to do anything in the world, because he's physical, he's confident, and he's very talented," Cooks said this spring. "There's not a wide receiver in the country, in my opinion and I've been doing this for 13 years, that he shouldn't be able to compete with... The guys that I know that I've coached that are playing in the NFL, he's by far and beyond the best from a talent level. He's got all the tools."
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