KeiVarae Russell

Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell declares for 2016 NFL Draft

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Add Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell to the growing list of underclassmen opting to enter the NFL Draft this spring. The junior defensive back from Notre Dame announced his decision to turn pro through an interview with Sports Illustrateds Pete Thamel, which was published Monday.

In the SI story, Russell says he made the decision to declare for the NFL Draft regardless of the decision by the NCAA regarding a year of eligibility. Russell missed the 2014 season due to a violation of Notre Dame’s honor code, which also saw a handful of other players from the Fighting Irish miss playing time as well. Russell returned to the team this season but missed the final two games of the year after suffering a broken tibia against Boston College. He does not expect to participate in any combine activities at the NFL Scouting Combine later this year leading up to the NFL Draft.

“I’m back on track as far as progressing as a player,” Russell 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 is scheduled to graduate from Notre Dame in one more semester, this despite having to attend classes at a community college following his honor code violation for academic integrity.

Russell joins fellow Irish players C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller as underclassmen to declare a year early for the NFL Draft. Keith Arnold of our sister site Inside the Irish posted an interesting though following the Fuller news yesterday…

Arnold was referring to Notre Dame linebacker Jaylen Smith , who suffered a severe knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Smith’s injury is a reminder that a devastating injury can occur at any time, and that can convince some talented college players to test the NFL waters as early as possible.

Notre Dame DB KeiVarae Russell out 6-8 weeks with broken tibia; RB Prosise doubtful for Stanford game

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Notre Dame senior defensive back KeiVarae Russell will miss this week’s game against Stanford as he recovers from surgery for a broken tibia. The injury, which occurred during Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series victory in Boston against Boston College, will keep Russell out of action for the next six to eight weeks.

If you take a look at the calendar and do the math (don’t worry, I’ll do it for you right now), six weeks from today is January 3, 2016. Eight weeks is January 17, 2016. This would appear to have Russell out of action for the remainder of the year, including Notre Dame’s still-to-be-decided postseason, but it is still too early to suggest Russell will not see the field again just yet. If he happens to be available in six weeks, then he would have a chance to play in final game for the Irish, IF Notre Dame ends up playing in the College Football Playoff national championship game. That would be quite the story for the senior.

Russell was among the handful of Notre Dame players suspended last year as the university opened an internal investigation regarding academic integrity. Russell expressed his frustrations with the process as he had to continue to wait for the investigation to wrap up before being eligible to play again. He eventually had to sit out the entire 2014 season but returned to the Irish this season. Russell leads the Irish with two interceptions this season and he is second on the team in tackles, trailing only Jaylon Smith.

The injury news for Russell was not the only tidbit shared by head coach Brian Kelly Sunday. Kelly also noted running back C.J. Prosise will be doubtful for this weekend’s game at Stanford due to a high ankle sprain. Prosise leads Notre Dame with 1,029 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, including 54 rushing yards against Boston College. That would be a big loss for the Irish as they head on the road for the final game of the season, and the final opportunity to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee as conference championship week is played next week. Stanford has held three of their last four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards (Oregon rushed for 231 yards).

Why people are buying Notre Dame as College Football Playoff contender (and why some might hold off)

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It’s about that time of the year again when Notre Dame starts generating some buzz as a national title contender. This seems to happen every few years or so. If we’re not asking if Notre Dame will be back, we are asking if they will be in the championship conversation. Perhaps those questions are the same for some. Whatever the case is, the Irish appear to be entering the 2015 season with high expectations by many around the college football universe. Are you buying the Irish as a College Football Playoff contender, or are you holding off to see how they start the new season?

Associated Press college football writer Ralph Russo placed Notre Dame in a College Football Playoff semifinal, against Auburn (Ohio State and Baylor are in the other semifinal). Russo’s early summer bowl projections are not the only place you will see preseason hype for the Irish. Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports said in a recent mailbag post he views Notre Dame as a legit playoff contender. The always knowledgeable Matt Brown, of Sports On Earth, lauded the playoff talent on Notre Dame’s roster, suggesting Notre Dame may actually be underhyped. Fresh off Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl victory over LSU at the end of last season, Chicago Tribune writer Chris Hine set the bar for the Irish at the College Football Playoff level. Anything short of a playoff game won’t cut it for the Irish in 2015, Hine suggested. Travis Haney of ESPN.com reviewed first-time starting quarterbacks for this upcoming season’s supposed playoff contenders, which naturally included Malik Zaire of Notre Dame.

So here we are on June 10, with many respected names around college football’s media coverage dropping Notre Dame in the playoff conversation. Are they on the mark with the Irish, or is it a tad early to suggest Notre Dame will have everything in place to make a postseason run?

A quick review of what the Irish have shows why so many seem to be optimistic about Notre Dame in 2015. First, the Irish return 19 starters from last season. This does not account for the possible returns of potential starters Ishaq Williams at defensive end and KeiVarae Russell at defensive back. As mentioned above, Zaire is set to take control of the offense without anybody standing in his way following Everett Golson transferring to Florida State. Zaire has shown some promise, but now the job is his. Let’s see how he and head coach Brian Kelly handle it.

Notre Dame’s defense was hampered by injuries down the stretch of the season in 2014, and it showed. What will ultimately place Notre Dame in the playoff hunt will be an improvement in turnover margin. When the Irish defense was beat, it was torched. Last season the Irish forced 23 turnovers, but gave the football away 26 times. It was the third time Notre Dame had a negative turnover margin in a season since 2008. Not so coincidentally, when Notre Dame made a run to the BCS Championship Game in the 2012 season, the Irish had their highest turnover margin in that stretch, with a +8. The Irish will also have to improve inside the red zone. Last year the Irish entered the opponent’s 20-yard line 62 times. On 40 of those trips the Irish scored a touchdown, good for the 45th best red zone touchdown percentage in the country. Three of the four playoff teams had a higher percentage last season (Florida State was significantly lower).

If Notre Dame can improve in these two areas, then the schedule does set up well for the Irish to remain in the playoff discussion into November, but there are some significant hurdles along the way. Notre Dame opens the season at home in primetime against Texas, but the Longhorns are still in a bit of a rebuild state right now under Charlie Strong. Georgia Tech can be a stingy test early on for the Irish as well, but the defending ACC Coastal champs are on the road in week three. Notre Dame plays at Clemson in the first weekend in October, followed by a home game against Navy and another home game against USC. The Trojans could be dangerous, but you never know what will happen when they visit South Bend. A road game at Pittsburgh could also be tricky given the offensive talent the Panthers have (James Conner and  Tyler Boyd are among the best at their positions in the ACC, if not the country). Notre Dame’s season ends with games in Fenway Park against Boston College and on the road against always tough Stanford.

Under the new College Football Playoff model, one loss is not nearly as catastrophic as it may have been before for Notre Dame, but the margin for error is still small. The Irish not playing a conference championship game could lead to a similar fate as last season’s Big 12 co-champions from Baylor and TCU (although the Big 12’s strength of schedule was also a fair target, one that may not apply for Notre Dame).

Is Notre Dame for real in 2015? Yeah, they could be, but we will have a much better idea of what to make of Notre Dame by mid-October. If Notre Dame is 7-0 or 6-1, get ready for a Notre Dame playoff push coming down the stretch of the regular season.

Ishaq Williams closer to returning to Notre Dame defense

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This much we know about Notre Dame defensive end Ishaq Williams. He is back in classes in South Bend and working out in the football weight room. Beyond that, there is still some ground to make up before Williams returns to play a key role on Notre Dame’s defense in 2015.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly confirmed as much Tuesday night when speaking to the media before a charity event.

“I know he’s back in school because he told me, he’s in workouts because I’ve seen him,” Kelly said according to the Associated Press. “Those two things I know for sure. All the other stuff is NCAA eligibility stuff that is a lot more complicated. It has to do with missed terms and hours and appeals and things like that. A lot more complicated.”

Kelly also said Williams remains on scholarship at Notre Dame despite being suspended from the program amid academic infractions along with four teammates last year. It was reported last week Williams had re-enrolled in classes at Notre Dame. However, because he had not enrolled in classes elsewhere during his time away from the campus, his academic standing in the eyes of the NCAA remained a bit more of a question than it may for teammates KeiVarae Russell. Russell enrolled in classes back home while serving his time with the Irish, announcing his return himself.

Williams and Russell, if ruled academically eligible for the fall, should jump right back into key roles on the defense for Notre Dame, much like quarterback Everett Golson did last fall after missing the 2013 season. Golson, of course, has since transferred to Florida State for the 2015 season.

Notre Dame safety Eilar Hardy cleared by NCAA

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Notre Dame received some good news regarding one of the handful of players previously suspended during an academic investigation. Safety Eilar Hardy has been cleared by the NCAA and is now eligible to participate on the field for the Fighting Irish.

Last week we learned Hardy was going to be allowed to return to practice in late October. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-October there was still some work to be done by Hardy before he can return to play a role on the football field, but allowing him to return to practices seemed like an optimistic direction to be heading with regard to his eligibility. Hardy is the only player out of the five suspended players to be eligible to play this season.

There is no word on whether or not Hardy will be back on the field for this weekend’s game at Arizona State. However, if he has been practicing with the team the last few weeks, one might assume he is ready to take the field now if needed. If he does play, it might be in a limited capacity at the most. He has not been added to the two-deep depth chart just yet.

KeiVarae Russell plans to return to the Irish in 2015. Ishaq Williams is hoping to do the same. Barring any unforeseen changes, DaVaris Daniels and Kendall Moore will no longer be a part of the Notre Dame program.