It's true, as Coach Dan Mullen reminded, that this is preseason and everyone is still finding their fits. Meaning Mullen is maybe the most cautious over offensive impressions. But even the boss can't hide his own practice optimism…because this Bulldog defense is not a group to take lightly. So if the offense can stay on track through Saturday evening's scrimmaging; if they can make plays against a defense which wants to reassert itself as expected; then everyone can share the excitement.
So far though, so good per Russell. Whether it is the ground producing as was forecast for camp, or a passing attack that by all accounts is ahead of past-pace, so far has been so good indeed. "Yeah, we definitely are. We're doing a lot of stuff, studying film and stuff like that, just finding the best things to do."
On paper this should be when Mississippi State's air attack shows great improvements. The first-unit wideouts are all veterans after all, either true seniors or fourth-year juniors and the like. The younger candidates have a redshirting season behind them now, with two preseasons worth of practices as well as spring's specific training. Thus there is a group of guys who ought to know exactly what works, and what doesn't, at this level of the game.
Russell has seen the maturity these past two weeks of work.
"I feel going against our defense you find different ways to get open," he said. Considering who is on this defense, their own depth of experience and just depth period, and all the guys up for conference and national honors, this is saying something. Just getting open against guys like Banks, Broomfield, Slay, Lawrence, Wells, et.al., is a win in and of itself. After all, those are SEC-seasoned standouts in coverage who have the advantage of knowing their own offense to boot.
Beat these guys in a scrimmage, Russell says, and there's reason to believe State route-runners can beat the best of the rest in this top-ranked conference. "And that's going to help us out going into the season," said Russell. "Like when you're playing LSU, who is predominantly a man-to-man defense against us last year and stuff like that. I think the receivers are doing a real good job finding the areas, the zones to get open."
The usual suspects are getting their openings and making their catches in camp. It would be news if seniors Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, Chad Bumphis weren't. It would be bad news. None such has been reported though. Instead the upperclassmen are motivated by prospects of passes to be caught in an expanded 2012 offense.
"All of us are put in a position now to make more plays," said Smith. "As you know we're going to spread the ball around a lot, because we have a lot of seniors around and a quarterback that can throw the ball."
At the same time those seniors won't have the gameplan to themselves. A strong spring pushed redshirt Joe Morrow to the forefront too, and his big body offers options Russell welcomes, particularly in red zone settings where a taller target literally stands out in traffic. After two seasons it is time for Robert Johnson, or RoJo as Russell calls the soph, to make his place in the rotation. Then there is the classmate Jameon Lewis, of the quicksilver skills and slower development so far.
Russell agrees, it has taken Lewis—who got used to calling the shots as a high school quarterback—to blend into an organized offense. "When he first got here had kind of fan his own route," Russell said. The Mississippi State staff doesn't want to take away Lewis' creativity in the open field. They do insist he understand the plan and listen to his quarterback in the huddle. It must be getting across as word is Lewis has climbed a rung or two on the H-slot depth chart this week.
"Now he's matured and is doing what coach asks him to do," said Russell. "We never want to take his play-making ability away, he's a special type player. You can throw him the ball and it might be four people around him and he'll make every last one of them miss." As long as Lewis is where the ball is supposed to go, that is.
With all the obvious attention to throwing and catching, what of the runners? Since Mullen was, is, and always will be a ground-pounding coach at heart, this remains Mississippi State's first option. Literally, too, as run-option plays fit the talents of the four varsity backs perfectly. Russell has been working with the complete quartet, finding ways to make best use of LaDarius Perkins, Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, and Derrick Milton. Don't read anything into that order, either, as other than the edge experience gives Perkins there is almost total interchangeability now.
Especially because where in the past certain Bulldog backs were clearly better receivers than others, now everyone has the hands per Russell. Who ought to know.
"Yeah, I feel all our running backs can catch out of the backfield. And that's something we want to have. Somebody we can run the ball between the tackles and stuff like that, and still be able to be on-on-one with a linebacker. I feel our guys allow us to open up the offense and throwing the ball out of the backfield."
Speaking of running…here is another greatly-exaggerated preseason idea. That with Chris Relf graduated, the Bulldogs don't want the current quarterback hauling the ball himself. This is compounded by the blunt fact Russell is the only veteran triggerman on the roster. Redshirt Dak Prescott is booked to play, often and early, by Mullen. He fits more in the Relf mold as a runner-thrower, though with much more advanced passing skills than his predecessor had at this stage or maybe ever.
But Russell wants it understood: he can carry it and will, even if it has fans and coaches holding breath each time.
"It's amazing, especially against our defense, they don't think I'll run the ball. Then we have some kind of read and everybody goes for the running back; and I get ten, 15 yards just easy, snap! with nobody touching me." It needs qualifying that the no-touch jersey does give Russell something of an edge in such situations. Touching the starter too much might cost someone their scholarship.
Still Russell insists the quarterback keeper remains in State's game planning. And that he wants to show his footwork. "So I feel if I can do that at least two or three times a game, that's all you've really got to do. And I'm still managing the offense, we're still getting first downs and getting in the red zone."
Managing is Russell's own watch-word now that he is number-one Dog. Everyone understands how State's play-calling works by now; that after the sideline staff makes their signals, the quarterback takes responsibility for adjusting, adapting, or just plain changing the whole thing. Maybe this just applies to preseason so-far, but Russell has seen greater freedom given by the boss in 2012.
"Well, it just goes back to what Coach Mullen says about turning the offense over to older guys and stuff like that. He's not going to be on the field so he really doesn't see what we see when we're on the field. So we come back and tell him hey, Coach, we see this." Or, Russell added, they let the coach see for himself. And be surprised, even. After studying spread schemes for four years Russell believes he's qualified to take more upon himself now.
And it seems the offense's originator is comfortable letting players run the show more.
"It's a lot of stuff me and the receivers have that Coach Mullen doesn't even know this is the signal for!" said Russell. "He's allowed us to do that, and it's helped out a lot just getting on the same page with receivers."
Mississippi State turns a preseason page this evening with the two-hour scrimmaging at Scott Field. The under-lights action is closed to media, so Mullen will meet afterwards for a quick review.