"Oh, yeah. Definitely," Russell said. "It's pretty much opened up the playbook to me, and having the ability to change it."
Change things for the Bulldog-better, is the obvious goal. While come the 2013 season Russell will still take plenty of direct-snaps from a few steps back, if that is what the situation calls for, the spring fact is Coach Dan Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning are letting the old Dog work like a more classic style of quarterback.
"Coach Mullen is the one that brought up we needed to be under center a lot more, you're more versatile under-center and there's a lot more things you can do," Russell said today. Among those things is get a different angle on the defensive front-seven, without giving up any looks at coverages.
Besides, Koenning said, this is a quarterback with professional-style passing talents. "If he wants to further his career that's a big step for him. Also it gives us a little more flexibility."
This does not mean Mullen and MSU are getting away from the spread philosophy of the first four seasons. It is an adjustment which also should, the planning goes, take advantage of the runners' and receivers' varied skills. Saturday showed a lot of those with the ball flying all over the field, whether it was Russell running the first unit or walk-ons quarterbacking second and third teams.
Whoever threw, their first and often preferred targets were tight ends. Mullen tipped everyone last week before practices opened that he intended to put more of these men on the field. It's partly for the number of ‘tight' ends he has to work with, though of course veterans Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill are more true receiver types already. Not surprisingly they, and converted linebacker Christian Holmes, started most snaps from slot or flanker spots rather than by the tackles. That duty went to Rufus Warren and Artimas Samuel.
Whoever and wherever, just about all passing plays saw four eligible receivers at the line of scrimmage. And Russell took advantage. "Our tight ends are very athletic, we're going to use them to the best of our abilities. That's why you see a two-tight end set."
In one-on-one passing drills WR Joe Morrow showed off, elevating over CB Justin Cox for a grab on one sideline; then working the other side of the field he beat CB Rishun McCaleb. Not be to be outdone Malcolm Johnson showed his jumping skills with high reaching catch. The first turnover of the day was in this period as S Jay Hughes picked a pass.
When passing went to seven-on-sevens, Russell was able to hook up with WR Robert Johnson on a deep strike down the hash, as the receiver got two steps ahead of freshman CB Kivon Coman. Russell wasn't afraid to leave his throws higher than last year and his targets went up to get them, such as WR Fred Brown on a slick stop, turn, and jump for a reception.
But the quarterback didn't have it all his way as S Kendrick Market picked him off in this period. Later LB Beniquez Brown got in front of a Josh Hand pass for the interception. Russell restored some offensive order helped by Morrow as he got behind Market and LB Zach Jackson for a long sideline catch and score.
Over fifty snaps of full-team plays were run, with the first and second offenses working in order. The defense was more mixed, to get a lot of guys in synch with each other. Such as, the first defensive line and safeties were paired with second-team linebackers and cornerbacks, and so on. An emphasis on aggressive defense showed immediately, though not to coordinator Geoff Collins' liking as on the first two snaps his unit jumped the snap count.
Juco transfer corner Cox guessed wrong on a Russell sideline throw, with R.Johnson making the catch and long run. Later Russell found Johnson in a mob for a catch on the left sideline, and by the time the receiver was finished he'd crossed the whole field for an extra 20 or so yards. But after a fine catch, redshirt receiver Brown lost the handle on his spin and linebacker Jackson picked off the loose ball in-air for a return.
The running backs weren't ignored even on a day devoted mostly to passing. To keep the defense honest there were several draws and quick handoffs on what looked like throwing sets, with LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson working through traffic for strong gains. And when the defense attacked, Derrick Milton turned a hot-route catch in the backfield into a big gainer.
The first defensive line was ends Denico Autry and Ryan Brown with tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls. They were backed by, respectively, Preston Smith and A.J. Jefferson, Curtis Virges and Nelson Adams; with a third rotation of ends Torrey Dale and Jordan Washington with tackles Quay Evans and Nick James.
At linebackers, the middle depth chart was Benardrick McKinney, Ferlando Bohanna, and Richie Brown; with the right side Matthew Wells, Chris Hughes, and Ivan Muniz; and the lefts Deontae Skinner, Zach Jackson, and Beniquez Brown.
Nickoe Whitley and Jay Hughes were the first safety pair followed by Dee Arrington and Kendrick Market, with Deonte Evans and Quadry Antoine the thres ahead of Brandyn Bartlett and Deandre Ward. On the corners veterans Jamerson Love and Cedric Jiles were first but split snaps evenly with Justin Cox and Will Redmond respectively. Kivon Coman was in the third rotation with James Baldwin and a couple of unlisted walk-ons.
The first offensive line was as expected with RT Charles Siddoway, RG Justin Malone, C Dillon Day, LG Gabe Jackson, and LT Blaine Clausell. They were backed by Damien Robinson, Archie Muniz, Dylan Holley, Ben Beckwith, and Justin Senior; with a third rotation of Cole Carter, Devon Desper, Hunter Cunningham, Paul Thompson, and an unlisted walk-on.
Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow were the first wide receivers with Jameon Lewis the slot receiver, though often as not tight ends got to work this position too. Michael Carr and Fred Brown were the second outside receivers with Brandon Holloway in the slot; then taking third turns at splits were Jeremey Chappelle and Ricco Sanders.
Sitting out the day were RB Nick Griffin and CB Taveze Calhoun as they recover from knee and shoulder injuries. QB Dak Prescott isn't taking it easy despite wearing a full cast on his left lower-leg; he participated in some passing drills seated on a stool. Obviously the routes were short and limited to one-on-one matches but Prescott did make some fine connections despite lack of mobility.
And lack of scholarship passers is not a liability for now, Koenning said. "Not really. The first group we can do just about what we want to do. The second and third group is all teaching, those guys are learning."
The Bulldogs don't practice again until Tuesday, the first of three sessions prior to the short Easter Weekend. So there are a couple of days for coaches to tear through today's tape, as well as results of Wednesday's opening practice, and decide what to emphasize the next time. Among them will be what offensive plays Russell approves of, since Mullen is giving the quarterback a lot of spring input.
"It's hard to say right now because we've just barely opened up the playbook. But I like the two-tight end set and things like that. And I like to be under center a lot more. I have to work on that more."