College Football

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell declares for 2016 NFL draft

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell declares for 2016 NFL draft Photo:

Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell is declaring for the 2016 NFL draft, he told Sports Illustrated on Monday.

Russell recently completed his third season as a starting cornerback for the Fighting Irish and was uncertain whether the NCAA would grant him an extra year of eligibility. He missed the 2014 season due to an honor code violation, which put his final season of eligibility in NCAA limbo. Russell said in a phone interview that he planned to declare regardless of the NCAA’s decision, as he felt ready to take the next step in his career.

“I’m back on track as far as progressing as a player,” he said. “I’m ready to fulfill my dream and help out my family and do other things I wanted to do in my life.”

Russell (5’ 11”, 196 pounds) intercepted two passes and deflected six others for the Irish this season. He finished sixth on the team in tackles with 60, including 3.5 for loss. He said he believes he’s among the top 10 corners available in the draft.

Russell missed Notre Dame’s final two games after breaking his right tibia against Boston College on Nov. 21. He revealed that the broken tibia was a manifestation of a lower leg injury he struggled with all season, and he spent the final three weeks of the 2015 campaign in a walking boot.

The 22-year-old's tibia is almost healed from the injury, but he will not take part in physical activities at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. (He’s expected to take part in the interview portions.) Instead, he’ll focus on training and will run at Notre Dame’s pro day sometime near the end of March.

“I will be healed in the next few days, but I want to be able to perform at my best with the same amount of training [others will have],” he said. “I want to get back to where I was and I feel like when I come back, I’m going to come back stronger.”

In his year away from Notre Dame, Russell focused on training and put up an impressive run of numbers in combine-type testing—including a sub 4.4 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 11 feet, three inches. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 17 times.

Russell acknowledges he’ll face questions from NFL teams about his missed year, which stemmed from academic dishonesty and forced his suspension in 2014. “There’s not going to be a character issue,” he said. “That’s the last of my worries. That’s easy.”

Russell arrived at Notre Dame as a coveted tailback recruit from Everett, Wash., in 2012 and switched over to cornerback in summer camp. He became the first true freshman corner to start immediately at Notre Dame. (He also captured the lead acting role in the campus production of Intimate Apparel.) By the summer of his junior year, he’d emerged as one of the top cornerback prospects in the country and was in line to be named a captain.

When the academic issue arose heading into the 2014 season, Russell could have transferred, but he instead went home to take classes at a local community college in order to return to Notre Dame. He valued getting his degree from the school, believed deeply in his teammates and wanted a chance to redeem himself. “My teammates, the coaches and the faculty opened their arms and allowed me back,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to play for Notre Dame and attend the university.”

Russell is a semester from graduating with a degree in management consulting after spending two and a half full years at Notre Dame. He plans on finishing his degree. “I wouldn’t have gone to Notre Dame if I wasn’t going to get a degree,” he said. “I’d have gone somewhere else.”

He’ll work on his degree around his new career, which he’s excited to get started on. “I have so much potential, and my ceiling is so high,” he said. “My drive and work ethic is going to come out when I’m around great individuals in the NFL.”

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