From The Dawghouse

I've been scouring the memory banks for a few hours now. Not for usual boring stats ‘n records reasons though. I'm trying to recall when during my own Dog days, ranging from student-to-scribe, there has not been any sort quarterbacking controversy. Answer: not very darn often. But then I speak only of fan and media perception. Because from the perspective which counts most…there isn't one.

Yeah, you read rightly. No quarterback controversy, as we who live and work outside the second floor, north end, Bryan Building understand the term. Oh, of course, there will be hectares of virtual bandwith burned, hours of airtime occupied, and quite a few barrels of ink poured onto the topic of Who Should Start for Mississippi State. And I'll be just as guilty as the rest of my tribe in fanning such flames. Maybe moreso.

Meanwhile Dan Mullen and staff will dismiss our smoke and go about the business of designing a gameplan for South Carolina, and then deciding who takes the first offensive snap of the aftern…I mean morning. Talk about change of pace, after almost an entire 2010 season played in evening hours Ye Aulde Editor is loving this extended stretch of daylight football. I'm a firm believe all football home games should start at 1:00 eastern and noon central. But then I was reared on the Prudential college scoreboard with that alarmingly space-agey board where scores were changed by unseen hands behind the stage. A realtime screen scrolling-strip is soooo overated.

And talk about change of fate…wasn't it the first afternoon of 2011 we were all lauding Chris Relf to the highest hogskin heavens as he raised the MVP trophy in Jacksonville? Ten months later he's in an even-steven competition to maintain starting status, based on two high-quality quarters by Tyler Russell. Now, in that observation we observers are correct, but for the wrong reasons. As usual.

Because it has become a Mullen trademark that in team-times good or ill every position, every week, for that matter every day, is open for competition. I know, I know, many if not most coaches say that…but few mean it and fewer practice (literally) it with the emphasis of this State staff. And if a position is not up for grabs it merely means either A) the current and healthy starter is so far ahead at his position he's making others chase him; or B) there isn't enough quality depth at the spot for real competition anyway.

I mean, after shredding MSU touchdown records last fall Vick Ballard has had to bring it daily to keep first place in tailback seating chart ahead of LaDarius Perkins. (Good to see both backs producing at a five-yard plus rate per carry yesterday for another change.) That Vick stays #1 is a credit to his continued efforts; that Perkins' share of shots grows is a credit to how competition improves everything.

Surely you see the point already. When Relf and Russell report this afternoon the competition for starting status won't increase much, if any. It's been ongoing since spring camp. Just as it was when Relf was trying to supplant Tyson Lee in '09. Or for that matter all last fall when redshirt Russell's presence pushed Relf into becoming a first-starting-year big winner. What I'm saying is another game week, same practice procedures, and may the best Dog emerge #1 by Friday. OK, no ‘may' about it, he will.

Nothing new to see here in that regard. Or to talk about, as much as we'll all try and I do mean all whether it is us medias from today's low-key teleconference to Wednesday's SEC event; to you fans at Thursday's call-in show. Heck, y'all may have better luck getting an answer than we will if only because at that point real practices are over and Mullen may well have made his call and be willing to go on-air with it. You can try at least.

Please don't think I'm downplaying the import of such decisions. Selecting the better signal-caller is even more meaningful for Mullen than the most Frantic Fan who today types with virtual-anguish how the answer is obvious. So utterly obvious that the coach will be a fool not to do as Frantic Fan demands; that any disagreeing fan doesn't want to win and is probably a Rebel at heart.

Just something about QCs which pushes our buttons, eh? And goodness knows I've seen too many here and participated in a few as well. No longer and certainly not today. Count me amongst those of the on-line opinion that this is situation is far more encouraging than controversial. I like having two quarterbacks with success under their uniform belts, at least until one of them is definitely, undeniably shown himself superior in all settings. Just the same as I like having two essentially equal tailbacks to toss at any defense. The trick of course is getting them in the more promising matchups, or rather miss-matchups, often as possible under the practical limits of subbing in a tempo-offense format. It was easier done back in the day where backs or ends ran the next play to the huddle. Now with everyone hurrying up to the line first to keep defenses afield mixing and matching is a bit complicated. Though, Mullen's ideal of being able to change quarterbacks by play-situation is looking more and more possible again.

Yet all we'll read about this week is who starts, as if it sends some sort of sign or makes some sort of statement. Well, yeah, as noted above, it means who performed better in practice. As well as who is healthier, and do remember Russell has been gimping since LSU with a knee strain. He still had a brace on yesterday and even admitted he was nervous about his first scramble, fearing pain. It didn't hurt after all.

Along that line, I may be entirely off-track but just something about the way Chris has thrown, or not, the last three weeks makes one wonder. If he were throwing on another outdoor ballyard we'd raise the question of sore shoulder or dead arm or the like. Goodness knows he has absorbed a ton ‘o contact since taking over the offense last year and y'all have surely noticed how this season he receives more second, third, even fourth hits from defenders. Just don't try asking Relf if he's hurting. You only get a smile, shake of the head and nah, I'm alright.

And you know, he just about is. I simply do not have the time today or maybe this week what with the basketball issue deadline looming Sunday, or I'd find the exact figures for wins by State starting quarterbacks. Relf has a dozen to-date in only a season-and-half; got to be about on par with, say, a Sleepy Robinson. Or even Rockey Felker maybe? That'll require some digging because it's only been a few years now media guides recorded starting lineups of the previous year.

Anyway, it says much about Relf's hard-earned intangibles that he takes the lickings and tries to keep on ticking as usual. Mullen pointed out how close the offense was to making big plays at Georgia, and he added more good comments on Relf after the first-half struggles at Legion Field. (No, no editorializing this week on prospects of being back there in January. I'm not in the mood after trekking the 82-route three times already this season, seven since May if you count the baseball tournament weekends and July's media day. I'm nearly qualified now to vote in Gordo primaries.)

Where was I…right, the starter. The one to be picked later this week and not announced until whenever Mullen wants. Even were we allowed to watch practices that would offer no sure clue since Relf & Russell alternate first team snaps already. I'm sure there will be no lack of ‘I heard' and ‘I'm told' posts from folk who have a friend with a co-worker whose kid attends class with a roommate of a best friend who lives next door to someone with a cousin on the team, reporting they know for a fact (fill in blank) is going to start. Hey, why not? Ya got a 50/50 shot at being correct and if so can claim by Saturday night here you knew it all along!

Now if you're looking for discussion of relative strengths here…forget it. As much as they seem on surface to be very different quarterback types, their three years under Mullen's management have produced much more similar skills than most want to believe. No, Relf will never be a pretty passer, but I challenge any fan who was at the Egg Bowl last winter and saw what he did on a bad hamstring with flawless downfield connections to claim he's not a throwing quarterback. How quickly we can forget that, or other examples, that by the end of 2010 this was an all-purpose playmaker running State's show. At least a large segment of the fan base see and some take the effort to post how much difference it makes having a cohesive offensive line in front. Which we ain't had too much this year, though a healthy James Carmon and improving Dillon Day are helping. Still have to worry about what devilment Ellis Johnson will come up with this week, though.

And we have more hints that Russell can run a bit, bad leg of his own at that. Not that we want him taking the sort of hits Relf must, of course, but he is developing into much more than the pocket-passer stereotype of signing days.

One more quick diversion before finishing. Mullen went to lengths reminding how when he made yesterday's halftime change, it was only the position; not the plan. "We just made plays," said Mullen today. "There were a lot of opportunities to make plays in the first half. In the second half we were real good on third down conversions, didn't have a lot of negative yardage plays and put ourselves behind the chains. We just executed and were much cleaner across the board."

Aha! shouts the flames-fanner, the plays were obviously made because the quarterbacks changed! Well yes…and again not necessarily for the surface reasoning. Let's not forget that once James Carmon returned at left tackle Russell benefited from far better protection, too. Have to wonder if Relf might not have done ditto with same five in front. Or, not. That's why Mullen and staff were burning the video last night and this morning, to see why what happened, happened. Never ever forget: only they really know what was really called. Just like only participants really know what pitch was called and where it was supposed to be placed. Oh yes, I've learned that the hard way over too many years of editorial second-guessing guys who knew what they were doing in the first place.

But back to the battle. "Tyler did a great job, he managed the offense very well, he was very accurate throwing the ball," said Mullen today. "And then our guys made plays with the ball in their hands. I thought Chris played fairly well. The issue wasn't one person, we had some dropped passes, some missed blocks, some negative yard plays that put us behind the chains. That was the real key turnaround, the overall execution of the offense in the second half."

Easy for me and we to pin it precisely on the position of most obvious interest. And yet again we may be correct but for unappreciated reasons. It may sound as if Mullen is protecting Relf—and after what the guy gave him in '10 there's natural justification!—but I kinda doubt it. If only because Relf is a tough guy and doesn't require protection. I know Relf's comment yesterday about how the coach "told him" he was the starter raised some eyebrows, not to say hackles, out in fandom. Comes across more to me along the same lines as Mullen's last-weekend comment on six wins as the season goal. We figured, and were found correct, he was referring to an annual baseline of bowl eligibility, not an absolute goal of '11 itself. More on this next week after game-seven and going into open date.

For now, setting a starter is probably not too high on Mullen's to-do list. Remember how a couple of weeks ago he was asked about a starting change for one game? Mullen explained that ‘starting' is in his mind a reward for excellent game week work more than, much more than part of gameplanning. Which means we're all approaching this from the incorrect angle. Starting isn't a controversy here. Setting a whole-game course is what matters.

"I imagine everybody on our team wants to win and do whatever it takes to win," said Mullen today. Including coaches picking the winners of this week's position assignments. Speaking of which, Carmon will continue practicing at both tackle and guard. It's hard to overstate how things changed with him on the field yesterday, uncannily if coincidentally alike what happened last year against UAB when J.C. Brignone was reactivated at halftime after missing a stretch with injury. Reckon the Blazers will keep an eye on bench Bulldog blockers from now on?

Focusing so on under-center angles misses Mullen's larger point. "I want to see everybody improve, all our positions across the board. If we're not a better team today after learning some issues and correcting some problems we had yesterday we can't expect to finish the season the way we want to." Forced by our queries back to quarterback, "I want to see all three of them improve, just like all positions."

Three, hmmm? Maybe things are more controversial than suspected after all? Oh, well, that's the responsibility accepted by a program that can turn an unrated prep prospect into a bowl winner while bringing two PARADE All-Americans along at their own paces. And having seen it the other way far too often, I can without fear of contradiction proclaim this is one of the best quarterback controversies yet at Mississippi State.

Because now…we have them to get crazily controversial over.


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