CULVER, Ind. -- Two years ago, KeiVarae Russell was a greenhorn cornerback thrust into a starting role when Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles' tendon during preseason camp.
Since then, Russell's started 26 games, put on 20 pounds and feels like, in his own words, a "full-blown cornerback." He's cleared plenty of hurdles since the 2012 season began, and now his next step is becoming a lock-down cornerback in Brian VanGorder's more aggressive defensive ethos.
"It’s not putting pressure on myself, it’s accepting the challenge," Russell said. "I love it. I feel like I can do it."
He qualified that confidence, though: "I just know I’m not fully there."
Russell has become a student of the position, closely watching the technique of NFL stars like Darrelle Revis, Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. He marvels at how Haden, the Cleveland Browns' shutdown 5-foot-11 cornerback, can make plays against the NFL's elite receivers.
But Russell isn't just trying to pick up on things from watching film of those cornerbacks. He's also using their success as motivation.
Russell doesn't want to be merely a good cornerback -- he wants to be the best.
"I think he has taken on this role as one of a challenge where he wants to be that Revis, he wants to be that (next) Peterson," coach Brian Kelly said. "He wants to be seen as that kind of player, and he knows he's got some work to do. I'm not comparing him to that -- I'm saying at the highest level in college.
"He wants to be that kind of player. He wants to be the very best at his position, so he's driven to be that player. He's not there yet, so that's his focus."
Russell didn't take many chances going after deflections and interceptions in two years under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The nine passes he defended a year ago -- eight pass break-ups and one interception -- were the most of any cornerback under Diaco from 2011-2013. And those nine passes defended didn't rank in the top 100 among FBS players.
With VanGorder preaching an NFL-style defense, though, Russell will take on more press and man coverage assignments, affording him more opportunities to make plays instead of sitting back with 10-yard cushions in a bend-but-don't-break defense. There's an inherent risk in taking those chances, which could lead to opposing teams generating big-chunk plays if he's not careful.
But for Russell, that risk means all the more reason to have consistently good technique -- just like Haden, Revis and the like.
"It has to be a consistent great day (after) great day," Russell said. "Even my OK days have to be a somewhat good day.
"So that’s where I have to get to, that point where my technique is flawless (so) when people go against me they’d be like, ‘Oh damn, him again?"