Now nobody is expecting this redshirt freshman Bulldog to suddenly turn into Mississippi State's version of Razorback Ryan Mallet. Or should it be said, not yet? Hopes are certainly high that, his first fall on the sidelines served, this most-touted State quarterback signee of this generation is ready to stake his claim to the 2010 job. That process resumed in-earnest Tuesday with the first practice of State's spring camp as Russell joins veteran Chris Relf as, essentially, co-first team triggermen.
Coach Dan Mullen, who made Russell the centerpiece of his first Mississippi State recruiting class, is encouraged by the first-spring frosh he observed Tuesday. "He worked hard this off-season, he's learned. You can see a different demeanor on the field than last fall, he's a little more serious and understands what is going on a little bit more. He's still got a long way to go, but he's worked at it…Tyler!"
The interruption in Mullen's train of thought was because Russell had just walked by, leaving the practice field. Emphasis on the ‘walking' part as Bulldogs are required to depart daily sessions on the jog. Russell ‘read' the situation quickly and made a quick move to evade this particular pressure. And, didn't stop until caught by p.r. staff for the first media interviews allowed with the former PARADE All-American since he arrived on campus from Meridian High School.
That last-moment rebuke aside, Russell was generally pleased with his first spring session.
"It was good to be out here, getting back into the swing of things. We had a good off-season, we worked hard, we threw a little bit. You can tell we really didn't throw as much as we needed to, that's something we've go to work on. But that's why you come out here and practice, to get better. We saw where we were on day-one, now we can move forward and make some corrections and get out there."
As Mullen explained in Tuesday's practice report, the offensive emphasis on day-one was passing and catching. This because with the Bulldogs restricted to shorts-and-helmet the coach saw no reason to do serious running drills. So Russell and Relf threw the ball early and often, whether in individual instruction, receiver-unit periods, or both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 situations. Russell's comment about not throwing as much as needed over their winter showed initially as both leading quarterbacks missed as many connections as they made. Some of this was natural real-practice rust; some of it just the excitement of being back outside working real routes, as shown by a whole lot of too-high or too-hard, or both, throws. Receiver and managers had to chase down quite a few of these balls as a result.
"Today I was kind of nervous," Russell admitted. "But I came out and got the first couple of throws in under my belt in the first practice. And everything is going to be fine."
He kept the confidence up even after, in full-team drills, one of his first throws was deflected at the line of scrimmage and snared by DE Pernell McPhee for a ‘touchdown' return. A few more of Russell's passes were also batted aside by interior pass-rushers, or broken-up by safety and linebacker coverage. The same held for Relf though.
What really mattered about those plays was not so much lack of connections; it was that Mississippi State is now trying to make such passing plays in the middle of the field and underneath the initial coverage. Those routes have been rare indeed at State the past few years, beyond the occasional hard slant pattern. Now, though, with a more experienced Relf and a taller Russell able to read the whole field, Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning intend to make the middle-third an area of overdue opportunity.
This also showed in unit drills when the quarterbacks threw more balls to backs than receivers. Said another way, more pages in Mullen's playbook are now open for use. Which is also another reason why Russell is glad he had a whole first-fall to get an idea about how this college game works.
"And just being out there throwing and throwing; the more I threw I think the better I became. I think it takes the nervousness out, when you know if you mess-up the coach is not really going to get you because you're on the scout team. If you're on the ones and you mess up you're kind of timid."
Now though the time for nerves is over and the responsibility is on Russell to prove he's capable of running, and more particularly passing, this offense. Relf has shown he can win a SEC game first with his feet and then with on-the-move throws. His pocket-presence is still in need of work though and this is where Russell can take advantage. Besides, the freshman says, the air game is a much bigger factor for 2010.
"I feel we've got to throw the ball a lot more. I mean we're missing Anthony Dixon now and we've got a lot of young running backs who are going help out. And the offensive line is doing great. So we're just going to mix it up and go from there." Speaking of mixing it up, Russell adds that he is still learning the entire offense but he's much more confident after that first-hand fall exposure.
"Because coming in the redshirt helped me a lot, when I first came in I didn't know what to expect, they threw a lot on me to see how much I could grasp and I didn't do a really good job of grasping a long. But now it's slowing-down for me, I know what my moving keys are, I know who my hot-guy defender is if I need to check or something. The redshirt helped me a lot."
For that matter, so does the continued competition with is elder cohort. So far it's a comradely competition. "Oh, I love Chris and all the other guys," Russell said. "We're a team and we want the best person to play. If he's the best one and he plays, I'm happy; if I'm the best one and I play I'm happy. Or if we tag-team like Tyson and him did last year, I really don't care. I want to win and he feels the same way and I'm pretty sure everybody else does, too."
Not least of all Mississippi State fans, who are starved for success and--like football fans everywhere—look for instant salvation in the quarterback. Especially one who has worn the uniform on the sidelines without setting foot on the field, which in a fan's mind usually confers an aura of sure-thingness. Give this kid credit for understanding beyond his years about how wonderful the Next Quarterback always is, and wearing such a mantle pretty lightly.
"In high school I had a lot of people tell me oh, you've got to do this, we haven't had a great quarterback, blahblahblah. But now it's not worrying about what everybody else does, just doing what I know I can do. And I'm surrounded with a good team and great coaches. I'll just leave everything out on the field and whatever happens, happens."