Don't worry either that Mississippi State's veteran quarterback will take offense, so to speak. If any Bulldog in this bunch has developed a healthy sense equally of self-confidence and self-deprecation, it's Russell. Both of course are necessary for quarterback survival, and what Russell has overcome already this senior season has tested him like never before.
Most obviously, that late-third quarter concussion suffered on opening day when Russell caught an unintended Oklahoma State knee to the helmet as he was going down. Coming after a first quarter play where, as he slid down to end a play, Russell absorbed a heads-up hit from another Cowboy—no flag was thrown—it knocked him out not just of that game but an entire senior September.
Frustration scarcely describes the situation for both quarterback and club, as week by week clearance was expected but never delivered. "It was always kind of iffy, you didn't know," says Russell. "They said if we have to play you, we'll play you; if we don't your job is to help out. They wanted me to make sure I got healthy before I went back out on the field. They were just looking out for my health ASLT."
"At first it was frustrating, I meant to want to play especially in big-time games like Auburn ASLT. But I knew my role was to help any way I could and I did my best to get the crowd up, get my team up, help Dak ASLT." Which is how the Bulldog program's record-setting passer had to settle for service as assistant coach and cheerleader for three games.
In the latter role Russell has served very well, as those who know him would expect. He and third-fall sophomore Dak Prescott have developed a fine working relationship all along. Taking nothing away from the younger quarterback's talents and teaching, input from his elder has contributed to Prescott's own production in an unexpected starting situation. Make no mistake, Russell has a real quarterback's pride.
He also understands how to handle adversity, on and off the field.
"At first it was pretty difficult. But I knew my job at the time was to help Dak on the sideline. I still had to be like I was the starting quarterback out there on the field, and when I saw things that he didn't see on the back-side of the play ASLT I told him. I mean that's how we've always been. So it was good for me to take that approach and be able to help any way I could."
The first of State's two open dates proved well-timed giving Russell a little longer recovery, ahead of last week's return. He was supposed to have the second offensive series against LSU, but when Prescott and RB LaDarius Perkins—himself coming off ankle issues—combined for a three-play touchdown drive Coach Dan Mullen left the starter in for another series. So Russell didn't trot out with the offense until 14:51 of the second period and immediately led a touchdown drive.
OK, maybe not immediately. LSU to no one's surprise sent first down pressure and sacked him. Funny thing, though. "I'm the type of person that once I get out there it takes me one or two plays just to get going," Russell said. "So that play I got sacked on, after that I knew I was ready. And that drive, we went down and scored so it was good for me to get back out there with the team and on the field."
Very good as things proved. RB Josh Robinson negated the loss with a 20-yard bust as LSU guessed pass again, then Russell scrambled forward for five himself before throwing for 20 more yards to Perkins. Maybe the key play, at least emotionally, came when Russell judged the Tiger front and called his own number around left end for 15 yards…the last five of which he carried both the ball and some tacklers forward.
"Yeah, that's something Dak taught me!" Russell said, since the question had coincided with Prescott joining the media huddle to listen and laugh. "Actually I just ran the ball and I wasn't going down, I just kept going and moving my feet."
And if there was any question how the concussion might have rattled Russell, he proved very much otherwise by throwing a 20-yard touchdown to WR Jameon Lewis to complete the drive. It was 3rd-and-10 and as State came to the line the quarterback recognized something…not from scouting this Tiger team but from 2012's game in Baton Rouge.
"It was the exact same coverage, the exact same play as last year. I'd seen it before, they brought the same thing. I was fast and quick, I knew the protection I wanted to call and the route I wanted to call. It was I guess you could say muscle-memory, I just knew what to do."
But wait, there's something much more impressive to this read-and-respond. "We didn't go over that play at all during the week," Russell admitted. "Actually we had another check, but I felt that would be the better thing at that moment in time." Which it certainly was.
After another Prescott series, stalled by a Dog holding penalty, Russell came back for a second turn in the same quarter. This one ended on a remarkable 59-yard touchdown play, as Russell hung the ball for lanky wideout De'Runnya Wilson to catch over a LSU defender before turning-and-burning for the score. For all the athleticism freshman Wilson displayed, the throw was perfect for the situation. Just as the previous touchdown had been put inside a defender for Lewis to snare on the run.
So for all the world to see and figure, Russell had no rust at all from his lengthy layoff, right? Welllll…
"Actually to be honest last week I didn't have a good week of practice. I think I was just trying to press too much and make the perfect throw and perfect play ASLT instead of just letting it all happen. When I got in the game it all came to me, I felt I was my old self checking plays and getting the team in the right play."
Russell's return was not flawless. He and Lewis would love to have their third-down situation before halftime back, as the short slant-throw was a little behind and the reach a little late. In the fourth quarter, forced by a big deficit to throw long, some of Russell's attempts stayed in the air just a touch long enough for coverage to come over and deflect. All aspects considered though it was a sharper performance than would have been expected under the circumstances.
Now the key is being not just a little better but making lots of improvement, said Russell. And doing so in a competitive two-quarterback scheme which both Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning are committed to at the moment. Neither quarterback will deny desire to be the starter now; it would worry if either were not openly ambitious to take the first snap, the key snap, the last snap. Quarterback pride, remember.
At the same time, Russell affirms the reality of State's October situation. And opportunity.
"I was very anxious, very anxious to get back out there in the swing of things ASLT. We've got two really good quarterbacks, I'd say we have the best two quarterbacks in the nation coming in. So it doesn't matter who starts, whoever gets in is going to lead the team down there. So from that standpoint we're trying to do our best to get the W."
Which is what the senior wants even more than records. Though the one he just set is about the biggest a quarterback can claim. His two touchdowns tossed last game gave Russell the all-time mark of 39, surpassing the 38 by Derrick Taite in 1993-96.
Russell tries downplaying history a little, but it's easy to see some satisfaction too. After all, he said, "When we first got here me and Chad Bumphis were roommates. When you first get here you look through records ASLT as a freshman, he said hey man we can break these records. But at the time you just thought that was just talking ASLT."
Well, that freshman talk has become senior reality after all, and despite the missed month Russell should see several more opportunities to throw touchdowns before this season concludes. First-up is Saturday's 6:30 home, and Homecoming, game with Bowling Green. At least now he won't be asked weekly how it will feel setting the record because it is done and in the books.
"But it comes from having a good coaching staff, good teammates, and people that go out and make plays for you. Without them I couldn't get those. You have to have receivers catch, linemen to block, running backs to tote the ball and open up the pass, ASLT. And a good defense to get you back the ball. So without those guys the record wouldn't mean anything."
Alright then, but surely it means something? "It's good, but records are meant to be broken," Russell said. "Somebody will break mine. For me it's just continue to get better as a person and as a player and keep going."
And producing more good stuff like that.