He's the quarterback, after all, and that means speaking for the entire team…something new to Russell here at Mississippi State. But it is only part of the talking he has ahead this fall and not the most important part, no matter what media may think.
"From the standpoint of being a vocal leader that's not something I've had to do in a long time. Now I have to, and it's really helping me. I'm getting more comfortable with it every day."
Of course in a sense this vocalizing simply requires Russell to recall old skills used speaking as a high school All-American at Meridian. Much as had his assuming starting quarterback status after three college years preparing for just this role. For that matter Russell even has the advantage of four starts last season on the resume already, though realistically it was still Chris Relf's team in 2011.
Now? There's a new number-one Dog and it's time for Russell to act like it. Talk like it, too, which he has worked on. "Last year I could sit back and Chris would say everything. Now I have to be that guy that speaks up."
There's not a Mississippi State soul concerned Russell will make this transition from alternate to number-one just fine. (By the way, it's worth noting Russell has more extensive playing experience on his resume heading to Hoover this week than Relf did when Mullen took the new starter there in 2010.) The fourth-year junior got into nine 2011 games with the four openings, including starts against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Arkansas in the season's second half. For the schedule Russell was a 54% passer but doubled his touchdowns-to-turnovers rate with eight scoring passes against four picks.
Relf, not surprisingly, was given the entire Egg Bowl and delivered a third victory; then Russell was unable to play in the Music City Bowl due to a December knee injury. That was successfully fixed and rehabbed all spring semester and didn't keep Russell from having a splendid camp. He was so ruthlessly efficient in drills and scrimmages, that it seemed he'd been starting for years already. Yes, Russell agreed: knowing he is top Dog or ‘the guy' or whatever it's called matters.
"This will be a little different for me to actually be named the starter and being able to lead the team, and just to do the things I know I'm capable of. I would say it should be a lot easier for me to get in a rhythm. And it's going to be fun."
The kind of fun Russell had leading Meridian to the state championship, only on an obviously larger stage now. Now back then he was unquestionably ‘the guy' on campus…but again, it has been encouraging to coach and club alike how easily Russell has assumed such status since January. Well, maybe a better way to put it is, he has made it look easy; don't get any ideas the man takes it for granted.
Russell has worked for this, now he is working at this.
"It starts in the off-season, definitely in the spring. Just the little things, showing the young guys this is how we've got to where we're at, this is where we want to go, and these are the sorts of things you need to do to be successful. It goes from working out to doing the right thing in the classroom, on and off the field, being a leader in the community and stuff like that. And I think we've all done a good job with that."
That ‘we' Russell refers to is team only, as the only coaches allowed to work with the Bulldogs in June and July has been the strength and conditioning staff. Ohhhhh, yes, that is work indeed, as explained in more detail last Friday by Coach Matt Balis (see story). Yet no matter how rigorous the lifting and running and all that Balis' crew can come up with is, the day is not done when the last barbell is re-racked.
That is the cue for quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers of all stripes to get on a practice field and run the offense. Really, run the offense. This is where having so many veterans of two and three years in Mullen's playbook is showing some off-season benefits, which ought to bode well for the real season. Russell reports that the Bulldogs are getting twice as much done in half the time as once was the case when the spread sets and schemes were still new.
"Our off-season workout as far as throwing has picked up tremendously. We only throw about 30 minutes a day but it's full-out, go get it, you should be tired and sweating when you get done. And right now that's the only thing we need. Where as a couple of years ago we'd throw for like an hour and not really get anything…we'd get stuff done, but it wouldn't be this intense and efficient. So from that standpoint, yes."
Note, the ‘only 30 minutes' does not mean the lobbing-load is less for Russell than it was when he was understudy to Tyson Lee and Relf. In fact, his strong right arm has to stay pretty loose this particular summer due to a shortage of scholarship passers. Russell says he can't even count how many balls he chunks on a typical afternoon.
"I don't know, it's a lot. It's definitely a lot! Me and Dak (Prescott) are pretty much the only two quarterbacks right now so we're getting a lot of balls and we've got a lot of wide receivers. So we're throwing a ton right now. And it's helping us." Speaking of helping, there is another added responsibility on Russell's plate this season. He's not just ‘the guy' but he's the old guy in charge of training his backup. His alternate, even.
"I feel it's my job to teach Dak the things that we need to work on. If I see something he's doing wrong I'm going to tell him. And vice-versa. On that aspect I think things will change for me because I have to be that guy. And I think it's going to work out."
Oh, during all that throwing-and-catching another Bulldog is participating, albeit one whose skill is of a different sort but no less important to Russell's play. He has to get a clean exchange after all, and sophomore center Dillon Day is hiking it just fine in the summer swelter. Russell was proud to hear of Day's inclusion the Rimington Award watch list at such a young age and stage.
"I'm happy for him. We have worked out a lot together, we've been taking a lot of snaps. He's out there when we're throwing with the receivers, getting on the same snap count. So we have worked out." Speaking of that, Russell has a good report on another key to Bulldog blocking. "Tobias (Smith) looks good. And he's working hard and rehabbing, so I really feel he's going to be alright." Russell says the same in general for the entire offensive line, which—in a true change of summer pace—has been a topic of maybe more fan concerns than throwing and catching and running and tackling.
"I think they're getting better every day. I'm really not worried about it too much. I think they did a fantastic job in spring. And on things like somebody was blitzing or the young guys might not have known what was going on, make a fire call. It was my job to point it out so it's really helping me out and making this line better and making me better at the same time. Once we go through camp and stuff they'll be ready."
Russell is absolutely ready to take charge of the 2012 offense in particular and team in general. It's what he has prepared for, and for that matter been prepared for. The timing certainly seems right because based on spring showings and summer talkings this year's gameplan is directly tailored to Russell's skill-set.
"I like to throw the ball and we changed a lot of stuff up that will benefit me. And I really do believe will help benefit the team. You've got a lot of backs capable of running the ball, now with the receivers we've got and different weapons we can utilize them the way that we need to."
The ‘we' includes his head coach. Mullen might have tossed Russell into early action three years ago. Instead he has allowed the tall passer to develop along with the rest of the roster to this '12 point where the right tools are there to match Russell's strong points. And, to where the quarterback and coach can communicate correctly.
"I've been in the system for a while now and I know the things he likes and the things he wants me to do. And he'll tell me, I mean he's not shy to get in your face and tell you that you're not doing a good job at all! I think early on in my career I'd take that as kind of, well, I don't know... But now, he's trying to make me better and that really has helped me get to the player I want to be.
"I can tell him what I see on the field. And that's what he wants. He was telling me the other day you tell me what you like and what you don't like, there is no point running something you don't like and you're not comfortable with. So it goes hand-in-hand."
But for one morning this week it is a microphone in Russell's hand. Before barking snap counts in August, the quarterback answers July questions. Maybe he ought to print out a text received from senior receiver Chad Bumphis this month and hand out copies to SEC reporters.
"Chad sent me a message talking about this is our year, we have to be ready, we've got a lot to prove. That's something I haven't seen in the past years. I really do feel this team is close. They're like my brothers and everything like that. So I believe everybody is locked-in and ready to play."