Waited pretty patiently lo these first three Bulldog seasons, Russell has. Even better, productively. Just as Coach and coordinator Les Koenning expected when the PARADE All-American and prep champion signed on with Mississippi State as part of Coach Dan Mullen's first and key recruiting class.
"We made an investment with Tyler," Koenning said. "When he came in we said we were going to play him in most every football game. And he has now ended up winning the job."
No surprise there given how junior Russell is the only experienced quarterback on Mississippi State's roster this year. Or one of just two scholarship triggermen total going into preseason, with the sudden mid-summer departure of true freshman Nick Schuessler after a month on campus. Had Russell not emerged from spring training as top Dog, well, that would have been big and pretty bad news. However there is an added item of information here.
Russell did not win starting stature by default. There's a redshirt rookie who very much factors into Koenning's coordinating in the coming season. Dak Prescott had a fine spring semester of his own and is only accelerating his game between now and reporting day.
"We need to do the same thing with Dak, get him into football games," said Koenning of the younger guy's own ongoing apprenticeship. "We need to get both into football games and keep both of them healthy so we can win some games."
Bulldog fans know all too well what the quarterbacks coach refers to there. They saw 2011 starter Chris Relf rattled early in the season with Russell taking over mid-October. Then as soon as Relf got his starting job back in November a concussing shot by Alabama sidelined him again. Fortunately Relf returned to knock out his favorite victims for a third time and win another Egg Bowl.
Then it was Russell going out during Music City Bowl camp with a knee injury that ultimately needed work. So if the durable Relf can be sent out so quickly, it behooves the Bulldogs to have as many triggermen as possible prepared for 2012. Koenning said this item has been addressed as successfully as the limited numbers allowed going into summer.
"Both of our quarterbacks had a really good spring. We feel good about both players."
Speaking of feeling good, Russell bounced-back from December surgery and showed fine spring form. True, he was absolutely off-limits for any contact. Still the veteran moved around with no hitch in his steps whether getting into passing position or shuffling into second and third reads with the protection. And while Russell rarely reveals temper, constant suggestions he is not a ‘running quarterback' does obviously exasperate him just a bit.
Then again it would be OK with Koenning if this quarterback never had to haul the ball himself. There's a more efficient way of gaining ground with Russell. "Tyler's biggest plus is he can really, really throw the football. He puts it in the correct places."
That is not a knock on predecessors by the way. In fact, fans frustrated by the seeming lack of passing prowess since Mullen brought his spread system to Starkville forget or flat don't believe a fact. The two most efficient throwers in program history, in terms of completion percentage at least, are Tyson Lee and Relf. Yep, there they are, #s 1 and 2 on the chart.
But guess who is #4 already? Yep again. With just 17 games (four starts) in two varsity seasons, Russell is a 55.7% passer. Admittedly the break-line for counting on the career list is 150 passes tossed. Still it's a fine start for Russell and presumably an even better starting-point for his tenure as The Guy. Besides, his 13 touchdown passes in a relatively brief span are more than many a State quarterback of three and four seasons' played.
Koenning came away from spring impressed at the "really good job" Russell did upon promotion.
"He's matured a lot and has done a really nice job of getting us in the right protections, making the correct reads on his pass routes, getting rid of the ball really well out of his hand. I'm excited to see what he can do as far as leading this football team in an SEC schedule. The one thing that concerns me is keeping him healthy." For reasons which no longer need explaining here. Koenning isn't being panicky, merely cautious.
At the same time, even were Russell to prove himself an iron man this and next season there is a legitimate reason for working Prescott into games. And not just fourth-quarter snaps either. The guy is good in his own right, and not to be exiled to the sidelines a second year. By the way, Prescott is not the typical redshirt either. He was an early enrollee and has the luxury of two full spring camps of preparation before setting foot on the field come September.
"When you talk about Dak, he is a different type quarterback," Koenning said. "He can run and throw." Yes, so could Lee and Relf as the records remind. But Prescott arrived on campus more advanced in the air game than Relf, and straight out of high school unlike juco transfer Lee. Meaning he has both more skills and more time to develop as a SEC quarterback.
Which his coach welcomes. Not least because nobody can accuse Prescott of not being a ‘running quarterback'. He's shown in drills and scrimmages quite conclusively.
So, "We will do a few things differently with Dak than we would with Tyler," said Koenning. "Tyler is more of a pocket presence guy whereas we will move Dak more out of the pocket and do a lot more play action."
And passing looks to be emphasized much more here in 2012, particularly the downfield throwing game. Where Relf was apt and short throws and hot-route reads, Russell looks longer. It isn't just his strong arm encouraging a change, either.
"Most of our receivers are seniors, and you've got young guys to step up and make plays," said Russell. "And I'm going into my junior year so I know the offense a lot better." He also knows something else not written in any playbook, but maybe even more important to being a winning quarterback.
"Now I have to take the next step of being a leader. I'm at a point in my career where I have to step up and be that guy. I have to be the guy who makes sure everybody gets it together."