In fact, there is no sense that Mississippi State's quarterback intends to treat the coming May weeks and summer months as ‘off'. Talking with Russell, it comes through clearly. Everything stays ‘on' between now and the 2013 season which looms larger each day for the senior. And, for fifth-year Coach Dan Mullen. A whole lot of Bulldog pieces are finding their places, and post-spring impressions have raised the fall expectations further.
None stand out more of course than Russell after his record-smashing junior year. His name now tops the charts for season yardage (2,897), completions (231), and touchdowns (24), and all by whopping margins at that. With any sort of similar success this season Russell will graduate with all the career passing marks that matter; and the most important one, touchdowns, is just a couple of drives away from falling as he trails Derrick Taite's standard of 38 scoring throw by one.
The thing is…similar won't be successful enough to satisfy Russell or Mississippi State.
"That stuff motivates me to get out there and work harder," he said. "And that's what you look for. Last season we didn't end it the way that we wanted to. But you can take the good and the bad."
‘Good and bad' is as succinct a summary of 2012 as any Bulldog could offer, player or coach or fan for that matter. By historical standards eight regular season victories, as well as breaking-even in conference play, would have made that a season still being celebrated. And objectively there is much worth remembering fondly from Mullen's fourth squad, especially the offensive side of things.
Yet as Russell understands, college football is not nearly so much about initial impressions. The ending is what counts. So a 7-0 start is now largely overlooked by the frustrating finish, against it needs noting the real meat of last year's slate. Bowing-out on a baffling Gator Bowl performance didn't salve any wounds either.
Least of all for the quarterback. "The bad thing is in the bowl game I performed terribly, there's nothing else you can say. So I was really down about that," Russell acknowledged. A 12-of-28 afternoon indeed was not up to his high standards, nor two touchdowns against four interceptions with one of those picks returned for the day's first points. The entire offense was out-of-synch from then on.
"Oh yeah, that was just a bad game, everybody has a bad game. But in the end I've got to perform. I've got to be that guy to go out there every game and perform."
If Russell's performance in spring practices and scrimmages are accurate indicators, Mississippi State really does have ‘that guy' running the offensive show again. Naturally, a fifth-year senior with winning SEC experience on his account should be good in his last spring season. Anything less would be reason to worry.
Yet what he showed over the course of this camp wasn't good. It was outstanding most days and just plain efficient the rest of the time. Never mind the no-contact gear Russell wore; in this '13 case an all-red uniform at practices and scrimmages instead of just the usual hands-off green jersey seen at the spring game. Mullen wasn't joking at all when he warned anyone hitting the only scholarship quarterback in camp would cost a scholarship or even coaching job.
Even allowing for the safe status, Russell was sharp. Had the defense been given a little latitude to pressure the passer some statistics would have suffered, but not that much. Russell got the ball out on-time and on-schedule better than ever, even more than last spring. And he spread it around better than ever. This in fact was one encouraging cue for the still-developing offense. Because unlike the last couple of off-seasons when quarterbacks had all-veteran receivers to throw at, whether slot or split or tight, Russell was working with a different group.
A very different group in many aspects.
Some are experienced already if not nearly so established as were long-timers Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, and Russell's high school cohort Chris Smith. Certainly Marcus Green set some sort of record for tenure at tight end. No wonder spring sessions to re-fill all those starting jobs and re-establish a depth chart drew so much interest. Still, veterans Jameon Lewis, Malcolm Johnson, and Robert Johnson have made real-game plays before and greater things can be forecast.
Then there were the less-seasoned and outright redshirted guys ready for their turns. Russell gives the thumbs-up after camp.
"All my receivers are doing good. They're all young so sometimes they'll mess-up. But you just have to talk to them and try to get them to understand what you're looking for. And I think we'll be fine."
Notice the ‘my' bit. That isn't arrogance speaking, it is Russell really taking responsibility for maximizing the varied talents these targets offer. And varied is the word for it. Where the graduated guys were in many ways of mold, there are discernible differences between, say, R.Johnson as he works one side of the field while Joe Morrow operates on the other. Or, between veteran slot-man Lewis and rising redshirt Brandon Holloway, though the newer kid is also going to take some turns as a running back based on spring explosiveness there. That's if snaps can be spared from old hands LaDarius Perkins, Derrick Milton, and a soon-to-be-healed Nick Griffin.
Fit in rising (true) tight ends like Gus Walley, Rufus Warren, and Artimas Samuel with juco wideout Jeremy Chappelle and suddenly Russell has a wealth of targeting options. Though, this might bring its own complications. See, Russell worked with Bumphis/Smith/Clark/Green so long he knew exactly what they were doing, when and how, before it happened.
Now he's having to learn all the individual traits, techniques, strengths and yes weaknesses of a lot of different Dogs. This makes how well Russell delivered the ball to everyone in spring that much more impressive given the remaining ‘newness' involved. It is also why the quarterback demands all involved invest more summer time running routes and creating chemistry. Because even on high-percentage scrimmage showings Russell was critiquing. Such as after the spring game.
"I think I did well. There's some things I could have worked on as far as throws, back-shoulder, I led some guys. And them giving me some more room to work with on the sideline. It's little things we just have to work on." Then again maybe Russell was annoyed that the losing White team, his squad, had to clean up the stadium on Sunday morning. "Yeah, it kind of messed my plans up to go turkey hunting!"
An obvious side-story to spring was how Russell was, for all practical purposes, the only quarterback in town. Sam Cowart and Josh Hand did their share to be fair, and as Mullen joked they got more spring snaps than any walk-on quarterbacks in the SEC. Still the other varsity triggerman was literally hobbled after winter surgery on a turf toe, and it will be summer before Dak Prescott is taking true snaps.
Russell is completely practical on this topic. He wants Prescott throwing from the pocket and not seated on a stool ASAP. "You definitely have to get Dak back healthy. He's doing really good with his rehab and stuff like that. And we push each other so that helps out a lot." By the way, Prescott's short-yardage drills passing from the seated position wasn't just a case of a strong arm, which he has.
"I talked to Coach Mullen and Coach (Matt) Balis about getting our core stronger and stuff like that," Russell said. "We still did other stuff but we did extra stuff with the core, and it proves it works. I was impressed with some of the stuff he did." Because, after all, Russell himself practiced throwing off the stool after his 2011 pre-bowl knee injury and on into the next spring.
That was a couple years ago, before Russell ascended to Top Dog status in 2012. The record book shows what he's done with the opportunity, as does a winning season. "But it also motivated me to get back out and work harder and watch more film and stuff like that," he said.
"So I think we did that, on both sides of the ball. Having the opportunity to coach young guys and try to get them to understand what I'm thinking is what I want to take out of the spring."
And, take into a summer that only looks long on the calendar. Because for a SEC quarterback, August is just around the corner.