Of course all that matters to the ultimate audience is which Mississippi State quarterback is receiving the snap. To that end Koenning and Coach Dan Mullen are handling this game-week's work just as any other of 2011, or last season, or the one before. Come Thursday evening the whole week's practice results will be compiled, grades assigned, and then both Chris Relf and Tyler Russell will know exactly how they fit into the South Carolina game plans.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to win," Koenning said. "And we're going to put the best person out there to win football games."
How that ‘best' is determined is what makes this particular week so interesting. Observers only have games to judge by, and based solely on most recent results sophomore Russell would have an apparent edge. Put in charge at halftime, Russell responded with an excellent two quarters of three touchdown passes—for all MSU scoring—and completed 11 of 13 throws without a turnover. Not even a fumble.
Good. Even great under the circumstances, Koenning agrees. And not a surprise to him at all based on preparation results.
"Last week Tyler had an exceptional week of practice, I think he completed over 90% of his passes. It showed you he was ready to play. As a coach you put ‘barriers' of what you look for on a quarterback. Obviously he showed us he was ready to play that week. We felt comfortable putting him in the game."
Russell surely looked comfortable too, though it can't be overstated how much he and the entire offense was helped with James Carmon also being inserted at left tackle for the second half. Russell did take a sack but protection was much improved. Besides, as Koenning reminded, "As the game went on you could tell UAB probably had prepared for Chris to play. Tyler comes in with a good changeup and connects on some balls and does some really nice things."
Naturally the Blazers schemed entirely for Relf, making his 19th-straight start for State. Interestingly, UAB gave Relf troubles in 2010, limiting him to 8-of-19 throwing for just 107 yards. So they had a better idea than some how to attack the veteran quarterback. Despite this Koenning was not too critical of Relf's 6-of-10 first half with 46 yards.
"Chris didn't play that bad, if you look at his total grade. It wasn't like he was messing it up! He missed one or two throws, we missed a curl-route and then a short throw into the boundary. Then there were a couple of drops. That plays in a quarterback's mind, too." And by extension perhaps a whole team's mindset. That, only a coach really knows no matter what it might look like from press box or grandstands.
"The deal is Tyler played really well," Koenning said. The coach even called up a similar experience fans are fond of as a comparison. That being the 2009 Egg Bowl, when Relf took over at intermission and led the Bulldogs to Mullen's first big victory with State. "Like Chris a couple of years ago when he came in he had an opportunity, he (Russell) had prepared to play, and he did a nice job."
Russell knew he was preparing well too, because he had the proof provided following every practice on paper. The same sort of printouts he and Relf both receive this week, too, and any other week of their Bulldog careers. Mullen and Koenning make sure their quarterbacks do not lack for evening reading material.
"When you go through it, you put everything down on paper; here's what you did right, here's what you did wrong," Koenning said. "And if the rights overweigh the wrongs it's probably a pretty good sign now. That's the issue with Tyler; he grasped, he understood what we're trying to get done, and his completion average throughout the week was good."
At the same time Relf prepared well, too. It needs reminding that while Mullen may well lean toward keeping consistency at this most critical offensive position, he opens it up to fresh competition each week as far as who starts and who waits. For that matter Mullen is not nearly as obsessed with the ‘starter' label as others are.
In fact, Mullen said Monday he preaches to all his quarterbacks—including #3 man Dylan Favre and redshirting freshman Dak Prescott—that they need to be a ‘starting' quarterback in preparations. No matter which unit they practice with.
"Whoever steps in the huddle has to be a starting quarterback. From spring ball through preseason everybody gets reps with the ones and twos, so they have to bring their demeanor and leadership to the huddle. We'll do it this week like we've done every week since I've been here."
By the way, this is not simple coach-speak about ‘everybody'. Favre is held to the same practice standard as his elders, because he has the same potential possibilities of participating. "Sure, there's a possibility all three will be in the game," Mullen said yesterday. "We'll see how the game goes. There wasn't a set plan going into the last game and we played two of them, it could be the same scenario. We could play three this week, we'll see how it goes."
First and foremost, how practices go. Koenning is not joking about handing the quarterbacks post-drills information, from how they got the other ten players set to what the scout defense threw at them, with reads and progressions graded and even mental mistakes pointed out. "It shows up on the sheets we turn into them each day," Koenning said. The coach added that this data not only lets the quarterbacks understand how they compare to each other; it helps family and friends know starting and subbing decisions are not made based on whim or personalities or any non-football factor.
Health is a football factor for sure, and was why Russell had missed two games with a sprained knee suffered in his late action against LSU. Mullen didn't clarify Russell's status over that stretch, naturally, leading everyone to assume the soph was available just as he has with some other injury cases. Nothing personal, of course, just pure practicality.
"You don't want to put a guy out there on one leg or who is beat-up or something is wrong," Koenning said. "We monitor, we don't always tell y'all! Then people can prepare for us." Russell still wore a knee brace at UAB and when he took off on the first of two option-keepers some sideline folk held their breath. Not his coaches, though.
"We knew he was healthy, it wasn't a situation we were worried about him getting banged up," said Koenning. "The week before watching him, it's hard to run the down-line option on one leg! He came back and showed us what he can do." Which did not necessarily mean everyone saw the newest starting State quarterback. In fact Relf said after the game he'd been told by Mullen he was the starting quarterback. Doubtless this confused fans, but fits in with the head coach's philosophy as explained above; that everyone is a ‘starter' even if not on the field for the first snap.
Besides, Koenning noted, Relf has not lost his job anyway. His passing percentage is slightly ahead of last year's in fact, though Relf is in negative touchdown/interception territory for the first time since September 2010. Koenning is still confident in the senior's strengths and experience.
"Go back and watch the films and what we've done. We trust him. He makes the pass against Louisiana Tech to win the game. We trusted him to do that." As for Relf's post-game comment, "I think a little frustration, maybe. There's frustration any time that happens. He wants to be perfect and we're very pleased with what he's doing. It's nothing bad. It would be disheartening if he didn't want to perform."
Relf does want to perform. So does Russell. So does Favre for that matter. And Mullen offers all their opportunity to earn their shot(s) each new week. Koenning also points out that while the three appear to bring varied, even radically so, skill sets and physiques to the field, the differences aren't nearly as great as would seem. Especially not in the Mississippi State game-planning.
"That's the beauty of the spread. People can give you different definitions of the spread offense. That gives you the flexibility of the spread offense, you can throw it and you can run it. When you have the ability to do both it allows you to play whichever quarterback you need to play."
No wonder then Mullen and Koenning pay no real heed to outside stresses over ‘starter' and ‘substitute' and so on. If anything, the head coach is amused given this week's context. "The team we're playing just benched one of the top-recruited quarterbacks in the country from a couple of years ago!" Mullen joked. And all know that Steve Spurrier has perhaps the quickest quarterback trigger in the game today, maybe even ever (re: Florida @ Mississippi State 2000).
So it isn't really critical picking who takes the very first snap of Saturday morning, as it is setting the best combinations of personnel to match up with an impressive Gamecock defense. "You can always look back at different things, we've got a lot of armchair quarterbacks around here now!" Koenning quipped.
"It's just executing the gameplan," he said. "Again, it's all based on preparation." And come Saturday everybody can read the results for themselves on the scoreboard.