Brian Russell appears oblivious to the activity around him as teammates and media members mill around the Vikings' Winter Park locker room during the lunch hour.
Sitting quietly in front of his locker, Russell studies a page from his playbook. This is vintage Russell.
Yes, he has risen to the top of the depth chart at free safety, moving past Willie Offord and Jack Brewer. But only two years ago the undrafted free agent was just hoping to get the opportunity to get his name on the depth chart as he spent the season on the Vikings practice squad.
That is why the Vikings' coaching staff doesn't have to worry about Russell taking anything for granted anytime soon.
"There is a long way to go," said Russell, who was inserted into the starting lineup for the Vikings' preseason victory in Oakland. "Getting on the field and getting an opportunity is really the first step. But now you have to do something with it week in and week out.
"You can't be a flash-in-the-pan guy where you have a good game and the next week you hurt the team. I want to be solid. When there are plays to be made, I definitely think I have the ability to make them. At the same time, when it's time to do the dirty work and just cover down, make sure tackles, things like that, I have to be there for everybody."
It's that attitude, along with his play, that has earned the 27-year-old Russell big points in his two-plus seasons with the Vikings.
Russell played in all 16 games last season, starting twice. He had an interception in his first start, against the Bears in late October. Russell had a career-high six tackles in a November start at strong safety against Tampa Bay.
That wasn't good enough for Russell, who split time during the offseason working out in Minnesota and in San Diego. "I think I came in in great shape," said Russell, who is 6-foot-2, 204 pounds.
The experience Russell gained last season also proved to be a big bonus when training camp started. Russell found it easier to make adjustments because he knew what to expect.
"You have to be able to flow with it," he said. "I think I have done a better job of that this year. Not being locked in to what I think my assignment is. When it's time to change and move on the run, I think the experience helps you that way.
"I don't want to make any excuses for playing good or bad last year. The bottom line was young then, young now. But I have a few games under my belt and I think that helps tremendously. You've seen situations before, you know what game speed is like, you know how these guys come at you."
Much of Russell's time in San Diego this summer was spent on the San Diego State campus working out in a group that included former Viking Robert Griffith, who is now with the Cleveland Browns.
Griffith, who like Russell was signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of San Diego State, provides inspiration and consultation for Russell.
"Robert Griffith is a tremendous worker. That guy is a workhorse," said Russell, a teammate of Griffith's in 2001. "He has become a really good friend. I do pick his brain. He has been up here. He knows, not necessarily this exact system under (defensive coordinator George) O'Leary, but he knows the teams we play, he knows the things we try to do just off those teams. He's a ton of help, and his insights have definitely helped. As far as his preparation for the game, I'm taking a lot from the year I played with him here and from the questions I have asked him since."
Russell, who started his collegiate career playing for Penn in the Ivy League, has no lack of questions for Griffith and other veterans in his quest to improve.
That also is why while activity buzzes around Russell, his head can be found in the playbook.
"I'm working to try to get every part of my game better as far as mentally," he said. "I have a guy, Corey Chavous, next to me, and I'm learning from him. At the same time, I think I'm a pretty good study and I work hard to study film. ... The more I can take in, the more I help the defense. My goal isn't to come in and just fill a role and be a mediocre guy. I want to contribute and be a guy that is counted on every week."
Free Safety, Strong Work Ethic
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