Spoken like a true number-one quarterback, which is exactly what Russell is of course. The junior is not just the veteran on Mississippi State's roster, he is the only veteran at his position. No need to suspect he is taking anything this spring for granted, though, never mind having put in his time awaiting coveted ‘the man' status.
"I mean, you've got Dak Prescott right behind pushing me, and I'm pushing him, he makes me better. So all it is, is coming out here and having fun. And it was a pretty good first day for everybody."
First few days in fact. Russell might not have taken a live snap since November, but he has looked pretty good so far this March. Very good in fact. Russell has shown a sharpness in these early—and admittedly non-contact—practices to encourage an entire offense. Whether in straight position drills, the pass-skel situations, or full team vs. team work, Russell has risen to the occasion.
Normally the preceding sentence would include ‘as expected'. Russell after all has felt the SEC heat, both off the bench and as the starter. He's won games and lost them, thrown touchdowns and interceptions, and seen what the best defenses in the country can throw at a quarterback. So he would be expected to be looking pretty good, right?
But this isn't entirely a normal spring. Russell missed the Music City Bowl with a December knee sprain that required some cleaning up and recovery. So naturally there were concerns about how ready he would be for this spring…and how that would impact the whole offense with only redshirt Prescott and walk-on Sam Cowart behind him.
Consider most concerns eased.
"The knee feels pretty good. It's getting better every day," Russell reported. Considering how much effort he has put into rehab, no wonder he looks ahead of this schedule. "I'm doing a lot of treatment on it, sometimes two and three times a day since I wanted to get back out here. It's been a while since I got out there and went full-speed with the guys. So it's just getting better."
Sufficiently so that Russell has even done some keeper-running in backfield drills as the option offense gets some early looks. Not that he will try to be Chris Relf in this regard, of course, but neither is Russell a soft touch at the hard stuff. Besides, he is as impatient as anyone to test the repaired right knee and see what he can do.
"Right now I'm feeling pretty good. It's the spring so they don't want me to push it. And I've got a long off-season so I'm going to be 100% without a doubt before two-a-days start."
Just to be safe though Russell practices not just with a brace on the right knee but one on the left as well. In fact so does Prescott as State takes extra precautions with the two scholarship quarterbacks. Hmmm, Cowart didn't have any on last week, so is he expendable? Russell grinned. "No, Sam just got here later and they didn't fit him for braces! But he'll get some."
Bulldog fans are bracing themselves for a change in offensive emphasis in Coach Dan Mullen's upcoming fourth season. Or is it shivering with their own anticipation about what a Russell-run attack might look like in 2012? Mullen is obviously the most interested party in this transition process, and confident a fourth-year junior is up to the opportunity.
"We have a lot of confidence in him," said Mullen after practice. "He started games for us last year, he played very well. I know he can throw the ball, I know he has the toughness to run the ball. It's just the experience and the decision-making, how fast the ball comes out of his hand and how accurate, and is it the right read."
There is more to read too. After three seasons of offense built around the run-read talents of Tyson Lee and Chris Relf, mixing Russell in a good bit last fall, the passing attack seems to take up more pages in this spring's practice playbook. Russell himself sees the offense taking a turn in the ‘vertical' direction these days.
But, he said, not so much because of his own long-arm skills.
"Most of our receivers are seniors, and you've got young guys to step up and make plays." Youths such as Joe Morrow, the type of truly tall target a quarterback can locate and lock on. Russell is already impressed with this redshirt. "I mean, I'm comfortable with all my receivers, but Joe is a big-time receiver. And the matchups he gives, if he gets double-teamed that leaves somebody else open.
"And I'm going into my junior year so I know the offense a lot better. Coach is trusting me to go out here and being able to change it and get my team in the right play. And I think I'm capable of doing that."
All that said…this is Mississippi State. And Bulldogs run the ball. Russell might miss Vick Ballard's proven power skills but does not expect any drop-off in the backfield. "I think we're very deep at running back," he said.
"I mean, you've still got LaDarius Perkins, Josh Robinson, Derek Milton, Nick Griffin. All those guys are going to be real good, just being able to rotate them in and not lose a thing is pretty deadly."
Any notion that the team's lone experienced quarterback is taking his status for granted need only watch the way Russell has been approaching practices this March to know better. There was nothing good about that December knee sprain, understand—"just a freak accident that just kind of happened"—he called it. But it left Russell with an empty place somewhere inside that only winning and bowling will satisfy.
Because missing out on the Music City Bowl victory "ate me up pretty bad." Russell's response was to attack the weightroom program in January with fresh vigor, as well as get busy throwing every possible pre-spring day with teammates. By the way, he claims to have added about ten solid pounds to the 6-4 frame, yet it has to be the right sort of muscle because the bulk barely shows.
And speaking of eating…the word one hears most often from Russell and other 2011 team veterans is ‘hungry'. As in an appetite for success that, frankly, last fall did not satisfy. A bowl trip and another win were OK, yeah.
"But that's not really what we wanted to do. I mean, seven games? We wanted to win twelve games and go to the SEC Championship, possibly the national championship. That is what your goal is when you want to play in the SEC no matter what team it is. And I think everybody is hungry. We had a very good off-season, and everybody was happy to get out here and finally do the things that we love."
Russell and team return to the practice fields two more days this week, with a 4:30 Thursday session and mid-morning session Saturday. Practices are open to public viewing.