Russell, Dogs Begin Serious Gator Bowl Work

He's enjoyed the down-time, relatively speaking, during the first phase of bowl camp. Not least because it gave that injured ankle more chance to heal. But starting today the Bulldogs return to a true game-preparation schedule, and Tyler Russell takes charge again.

His first task: translating the vigorous and often even fun approach Mississippi State applied to last week's work into practicing for the Gator Bowl. Because, Russell said Sunday, the real work begins. "Yeah, you still see a lot of energy and stuff like that. But the focus has to change."

Change from scrimmaging each to scheming for Northwestern. Coach Dan Mullen has saved the last four practice days of campus camp for genuine game-prep; in fact he has organized it just as Mississippi State would have for a regular-season game. The Bulldogs get their first collective look at the Wildcats, in all phases, today as a team and as units, then start putting it into practice. Tuesday will be the heaviest day for the offense and defense, likely in full-padding too, then Wednesday for clean-up as well as some extensive special teams schemes.

And when Thursday's brush-up practice is done, citizens might want to stay off the roads exiting Starkville. Because that is when Mullen releases the roster for their short Christmas weekend break. Everyone re-assembles in time to travel to Jacksonville next Tuesday, Christmas Day itself, and resume practicing for the New Years Day contest at EverBank Field.

By then Russell expects to be full-strength again, or close enough to it. The starting quarterback sprained his ankle late, very late, in the Egg Bowl, and had it come during the season Russell would surely have missed at least one game and maybe more. Even during last week's practices he was held to a very restricted script of limited throwing one day and nothing but rehab the next.

Sunday was an entire day-off for Russell along with all but a couple of other starters, so the underclassmen and backups could scrimmage. But alone among the watching first-teamers watching the fun, Russell was wearing football togs and cleats. By design, he said, noting the tape-wrap on the right ankle.

"Yeah, I got out here today with the tape on just to see, moving around. It's a little sore but I'll be fine." Certainly a roll of tape on the joint is much finer than gimping around the field in a heavy ankle-to-knee wrap as Russell did last week on days he was going to throw the ball in drills. Other days he only work a basic brace to do conditioning and rehab.

The ankle injury came at the bitter end of a season which otherwise produced some of the finest quarterbacking numbers in program history. In his dozen games Russell threw for most yards, completions, completion percentage, yards-per-game, and best of all touchdowns every by a Bulldog. He goes to Jacksonville looking to extend his records in those categories, especially for scores after tossing 22 touchdowns…against just six interceptions at that.

In fact, with a really big New Years Day he could set the career touchdown pass record. Russell has thrown 35 scores in just 29 career games, only 16 of them starts! The record is 38 touchdowns by Derrick Taite (1993-96).

Russell did not get to throw a lot last week of course. Nor really need to, since the first eight days were as much about evaluating the 2013 roster's talents as keeping the varsity sharp. Being able to observe was something of a transition for Russell in fact, because two years ago he was the young quarterback getting lots of bowl-camp snaps. And last December, he was also sidelined by injury, a knee that needed some clean-up after a careless hit in practice.

Watching the pups at play this month is giving the veteran quarterback a better look at who he has to work with next season, especially at wide receiver. That's where Mississippi State loses all four of the leading pass-catchers; slot-man and record-setting touchdown man Chad Bumphis, and split ends Arceto Clark and Chris Smith; as well as tight end Marcus Green. Between them this quartet accounted for 152 of the 237 caught-balls in 2012 and 22 of the 26 touchdown receptions.

So yes, Russell was maybe the most interested observer of the rising receivers. "I think they're improving. That's what you ask for, especially for the young guys that haven't got that many reps during the season and stuff like that (Russell's catchphrase, which in the future will surely be abbreviated to ASLT by writers). So it was a great opportunity for them to come out here and show the coaches what they can do and what they're capable of doing."

Speaking of opportunity, last December's surgery kept Russell from playing in the Music City Bowl victory, and for that matter he only had a cameo appearance in the 2010 Gator Bowl where he only had to hand-off. The Bulldogs were so far ahead there was no call for further passing at that point. So yes, he's eager for his first for-real bowl action as the Bulldog quarterback.

And no State fan will be surprised to hear how Russell got ahead of the schedule for scouting. The varsity wasn't given their specific plans until now but the quarterback has been watching the Wildcats already.

"I have, I watched some of them last week and throughout the week." And Russell's quick impressions? "They're a pretty good team. They didn't get to the Gator Bowl for no reason. They're a good football team and we're going to have to go out and execute."

Execution does become the resumed-order of this week, without as much margin for playfulness at practices. This should not dampen the Mississippi State mood though, said Russell. Just the opposite.

"Yeah, a bowl game is about having fun. You know, you're not guaranteed a bowl game, you earn a bowl game through your season, the way you perform. So when you have the opportunity to go to a bowl game you take advantage of it and you have fun, you go out there and joke around and stuff like that. But at the end of the day you still have to go out there and get the job done."

This week's bowl game practices are closed to public viewing.

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