Todd Lyght directs KeiVarae Russell during a drill during Sunday's practice.

Preseason Practice Update - August 9

Aug. 9, 2015

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CULVER, Ind. – KeiVarae Russell was among the last dozen of his Notre Dame teammates to finish lunch on Sunday afternoon after practice at Culver Academies’ Lay Dining Hall. Russell collected his dinnerware and began to clear his space before stopping and putting it back down on the long cafeteria table.

Russell walked from his end of the row to the other, pushing in every seat left askew by one of his teammates who sat there earlier. Russell went back down the row towards his dishes doing the same to chairs on the other side of the aisle, repositioning the majority of two dozen chairs before taking his dirty dishes away.

It may have been laziness which led to Russell’s departure from the program nearly a year ago, but the Everett, Washington native has returned to Culver wiser, more mature, and prepared to leave no stone unturned – or chair not pushed-in – during his senior year.

“Now, I’ve been through adversity,” Russell said. “People preach that at Notre Dame and life in general. What have you been through? It’s a question anyone is asked. What have you overcome? How do you react when adversity hits? Now, people see me (back here) and see that he’s overcome something big in his life.

“I’ve overcome this adversity in a way that people can respect, going back home and training my butt off. I was going to school still and working in real estate as well. You’ve seen an ambitious kid still trying to be an ambitious kid and actually get stronger instead of getting weaker during that period of adversity. I’ve matured and I’m excited to see how the season plays out.”

Guiding Russell on his redemptive road in 2015 is one of the finest role models he could ask for, Todd Lyght. A national champion at Notre Dame and Super Bowl champion with St. Louis, Lyght was also a two-time consensus All-American for the Irish and an All-Pro for the Rams. The fifth overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft knows every step that Russell hopes to take in `15 and beyond.

“Todd is a great role model for me because he exemplifies everything that I seek to be,” Russell said. “All of the accolades that I want in my future, he has.

“He’s preaching something that you have to listen to because he’s done it before. You can’t have the mindset of `is he right or wrong?’ because he’s right. It’s great to have someone who’s been at Notre Dame and done all of the things that I aspire to be. It’s great for myself and the rest of the corners to have someone like him.”

Lyght knows he also has a talented pupil.

“He has all the skill sets to be a great one,” he said. “KeiVarae understands the game, what offenses are going to do with formations and is very sound technically. I think the sky’s the limit for KeiVarae.

“I love his intensity. KeiVarae is such a special talent because he has the speed. He has the athleticism. He has the toughness. He has the power. He has the whole package, but you have to put it all together with fundamentals and technique. On a daily basis, he tries to get better intellectually learning the game of football.”

Russell and Lyght also can share an experience that has everything to do with football and literally nothing to do with football — living life in absence of football. Their circumstances are vastly different, of course. Russell lost his 2014 season to a suspension. Lyght retired after a decade in the NFL. The situation is the same though. Since childhood both had played a game with a rigorous annual structure. Suddenly there were no 6 a.m. workouts, offseason practices and the endless cavalcade of team meetings saturating your daily schedule. You had all the time in the world, a disorientating prospect if you’re not used to having any free time at all.

Russell worked out with private trainers, attended classes elsewhere to bolster his academic standing, worked part-time and stayed active. Lyght spent seven years with his wife and children after retiring from football in 2002. He commenced a meteoric coaching career in 2009 at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, later moving onto the University of Oregon and the Philadelphia Eagles. Each one has found their way back to both football and “our lady.”

“We started our family,” Lyght recalled of the downtime. “We had our son, Logan. I was trying different things. I was venturing out. I had dedicated so much of my life to the game of football. I wanted to step back and do some other things — which I was able to do. But, at the end of the day, my love of the game came forth again and I got into coaching. Now, I’m back in South Bend and really excited to be working with these guys at the University of Notre Dame.”

“The time away helped me out a lot,” Russell said. “You appreciate what you did have at that time. I’ve loved football my entire life. When I was away, I missed the workouts. I missed hurting with my teammates. I missed all of that. You take it for granted. It was tough to have that taken away and now my daily activities have to be orchestrated by me. It was a tough transition. It wasn’t used to not having football in my life. It’s so exciting to have that back. I’m flying around and enjoying this game that I’ve been playing for so long.”

Lyght may be relatively new to coaching, but the experiences he had as a player have assuredly taught him the game’s finer points well.

“I have been fortunate to be have been coached by great coaches,” Lyght said. “Lou Holtz, Barry Alvarez, Foge Fazio, Chuck Knox, Bud Carson, Dick Vermeil, the list goes on. I’ve been coached by Hall of Fame coaches. To pass on the knowledge I learned from them is very easy. I was a great student of the game and I listened. I paid attention to when great coaches were talking.”

Starting each of the first 26 games of his Irish career, Russell left a mark in 2012 and 2013. He earned freshman All-America accolades in ’12 on one of the country’s top defenses — a unit that spearheaded Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game.

There was no sophomore slump as Russell cemented his reputation as one of college football’s top covermen — a season capped by a Pinstripe Bowl performance which included three pass breakups and an interception as the Irish held Rutgers to 236 yards of total offense.

Lyght is thrilled to welcome back one of the cogs in that unit.

“KeiVarae does a great job assimilating into the team,” Lyght said. “I think that the energy he brings to the unit is phenomenal. The synergy that he creates in our group translated to synergy throughout the defense and makes us a better unit across the board.”

“I’m here to win a championship and I want guys to know it,” Russell said. “I’m going to hold you accountable. We have a standard here. This is Notre Dame.”

Russell and his teammates are four weeks away from demonstrating that they can live up to the lofty standards ingrained into their gold helmets. With Lyght showing the way and Russell helping lead the charge, optimism abounds at Culver Academies, home of one particularly orderly row of dining hall chairs.

SUNDAY AT CULVER: Skies were overcast and the team’s operations staff busily spent the morning monitoring a line of heavy rains pelting Illinois. Thankfully, the showers continued to slide to the southeast instead of heading due east so the Irish were able to conduct their 10:20 a.m. practice as scheduled under favorable conditions. The team’s first practice of the preseason in shoulder pads (a “half rack” in the parlance of head coach Brian Kelly) proved to be a productive affair under humid but dry conditions.

Several major donors to Culver Academies enjoyed the practice and also had lunch with the Irish afterwards. Among the group was John Mosely, a Culver graduate who went on to play for the Irish from 1980-83, serving as special teams captain his senior year. Mosley was hired by fellow Culver alumnus George Steinbrenner to work with the New York Yankees and he remains with that organization today.

Camp Culver featured meetings, dinner and more meetings following lunch. A Sunday evening Mass with team chaplain Fr. Mark Thesing, C.S.C. was held in Culver’s Memorial Chapel along with a Fellowship of Christian Athletes session before the team returned to the barracks for bed.

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— written and compiled by Leigh Torbin, athletic communications assistant director, and Michael Bertsch, director of football media relations