Russell Aims At Passing Grade On Opening Day

They don't go over there often any more. But Tuesday evening Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott were attending F.C.A., held in the Shira Center. In their former football team meeting room in fact. "We actually saw grades on the board we had last fall camp," Russell reported. "Our grades are so much better this year than they were last year!"

Turning the calendar from 2012 to '13 has indeed made some significant differences. One is where Mississippi State holds their meetings, at the splendid new Seal Complex. But of more immediate interest is how the Bulldog offense grades itself this preseason. A year ago Russell, the new full-time starter, and team were still figuring everything out, now the quarterback recognizes vast progress. And he doesn't need coaching grades to prove it even.

"So for me, that lets me know that I understand the game better, I know our plays and why we're trying to call these plays. And I'm a coach on the field."

Russell said so without the least bit of brag in his voice. It's simple fact. Getting to this point has been far from simple though, and Russell doesn't take anything for granted. Even staying atop the depth chart for that matter.

It's no coincidence the senior quarterback mentions his younger teammate because third-season sophomore Prescott has been good for Russell. For competitive practices, and for someone the elder Dog feels an obligation to develop. Not just for next year either. Prescott has attested how Russell refers to him as the ‘other' quarterback, not a backup or even a situational substitute.

So, says Russell, they've gone about preseason with both triggermen preparing to play the complete play-package for this very weekend.

"Just hard work. Just getting in there with Dak and going over stuff on the board and little things. Then you have practice, going in there after practice with the coaches and stuff like that."

The stuff that has Russell, and Prescott, completely occupied is Oklahoma State's defense. That side of the Cowboy ball doesn't get nearly the attention their high-flying offense attracts. Russell will tell a different story after some intense study.

"They've got a really good defense. It's going to be a challenge for, we just have to go out and execute our plays. It's more about us than them and I feel if we go out and do what we're capable of doing we'll be fine."

This is Russell's second season as starter, but he's played in three other opening-games already. In fact he made his college debut one to remember, as a redshirt 2011 freshman when he threw four touchdowns and was 13-of-16 off the bench against Memphis. A year later, at Memphis this time and again as number-two, he was 5-of-9 for 138 yards and another touchdown, though that scoring play is better remembered for Jameon Lewis turning a short throw into a 80-yard dash.

Add in a routine opening-evening against Jackson State last year and Russell has totaled seven touchdowns on 579 yards and completed 33-of-49 passes. Great numbers to be sure…yet he is about to match plays and wits with an offense which can knock out 500 yards in a single game given enough snaps. And the Bulldog defense would definitely prefer limiting Cowboy turns with the ball, which means Russell and offense must score often and burn at least a few minutes in the process.

Then there's the opening-day aspect of playing a conference contender instead of the easy wins State has gotten used to. Dan Mullen's program is taking a bold step agreeing to this matchup and one obvious reason is Russell himself, a fifth-year quarterback and record-setting passer. Beyond that, the Bulldogs will return from Houston with an excellent idea what needs doing in advance of conference play…far better than a Memphis or Jackson State would provide them.

Besides, said Russell, "I mean you're going to have to play top-twenty teams in the SEC almost every Saturday. So for us it's just going out there and getting another chance to play football. It's been a long time since we've played so everybody is hungry and looking forward to it."

Back to the player-coaching part. Russell is doing more than developing his fellow quarterback this season. He has an interesting bunch of young, talented, and varied receivers to fit into State's schemes. He'd obviously be more comfortable on opening day with names like Bumphis, Smith, and Clark running the routes…

…yet Russell seems to relish mentoring a pretty precocious pack of pups. And he likes what he's seen in preseason.

"Just how hard they work. Eager to learn, and stuff like that. They've done a great job of learning all the plays and where they need to be. And the things that I'm looking for them to do as far as if a guy blitzes you've got to sight-adjust. Just little stuff, and they've done a good job of that."

Interestingly, Russell says he hasn't exactly simplified things for these new route-runners. And his manner of coaching is certainly direct. "Sometimes I might call a play, we walk up to the line of scrimmage I could tell them what's about to happen. Or give them a signal or something.

"But I want them to see, this is the look, you need to do this, and if they don't do it the right way that's when I go correct them after that play. I say hey, in this look I'd rather you do this; if they run outside, run inside on this play. Just little different things like that. But they're learning and getting better every day."

It isn't just the quarterback acting as mentor, either. Remember, there is a trio of receivers (more when including tight ends Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill) who stand atop the position depth charts going into this season. Slot-man Lewis and split ends Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow have led the way in drills, as well as lead their new teammates through them.

"Those guys have done a great job of leading the younger guys," Russell said. "As far as I don't have to say much to RoJo, Jaemon, or Joe or any of those guys. They pretty much know what I expect. And the young guys look up to them, so so far they've done a pretty good job. I'm impressed."

Come Saturday, this quarterback hopes the whole offense makes a strong impression on the Reliant Stadium scoreboard. Playing on the big stage, against a major conference peer, has lent lots of zest to Bulldog practices since, well, since January. But it takes more than emotion to win these games. Execution is paramount now and Russell is nigh-obsessive about getting practical details done this week.

The results have the quarterback confident, as Russell offers an example why Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning have given him coach-like authority on the field.

"I mean we had a few times today where he gave me two plays at the line of scrimmage. The play I checked had nothing to do with what he called, but we went over it before practice and it's something I remembered. I called, it worked and they were happy."

Making every correct check could signal a happy opening weekend for all Dogs.

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