Mullen Inverts QB Order For Week-Two Testing

The impression was natural, creating a sideline buzz. But no, Dan Mullen insisted—the starting quarterback job has not changed hands. "We wanted to mix that up today," the head coach clarified following a Tuesday practice where Tyler Russell took the first turns in place of veteran and to-date top triggerman Chris Relf.

What got mixed-up over the course of two-and-a-half hours today was the script, not necessarily the order of things at Mississippi State's position of greatest spring interest. Then again, while not acknowledging any change in status between junior Relf and redshirt frosh Russell, the head coach did explain that both were being tested in altered circumstances.

"A lot of that is they get in kind of a groove working with the group they're in," Mullen said. "It was to give the opportunity to see how Tyler responds being in the first group. It's little bit more pressure when you're in that first group. Also, with Chris' leadership skills, to see him as an experienced guy stepping in the huddle and having to work on his leadership with the second group."

Results were generally good in both directions, though the change was greater for Relf who in the first seven practices had worked only with the #1 offense around him. Russell had up to now gotten a tithe of snaps with the first unit, the rest with the second squad. The eighth day was the rookie's chance to strengthen his case to be #1a quarterback with Relf instead of a backup.

"He did OK today," Mullen said.

The first clue that the practice order had been inverted came in 7-on-7 running drills, when Russell got to take the first snaps with the first offense. It wasn't necessarily a sure sign as after just a couple of series the freshman moved over to the east practice field to take over throwing individual passing/coverage drills; while Relf stayed with the front sevens to continue working on the ground game.

When everyone assembled for full-team passing practices, it was still Russell taking the lead. And, doing it well more often than not whether mixing short throws off to the flats or going much long between the hashmarks. The #1 defense did not take it easy on him either, as coordinator Manny Diaz put a series of newly-installed blitzes and coverages into action today. At first Russell was unable to find open targets and either threw incomplete or was effectively sacked…without contact of course.

But soon he found a better rhythm, as well as sharper reads that allowed him to take the ball in the right directions. It also helped with the offense picking up some of the pressures quicker. When the first defense tried sending a safety and linebacker on an inside blitz, Russell hung-in while WR Brandon Heavens cut down the center with MLB Chris White trying to cover…no contest. The long throw was caught for a touchdown play. Russell also took good advantage of targets like Chad Bumphis and Ricco Sanders, making more use of wide receivers this day. In prior practices he had more often looked for backs and tight ends.

But Russell had his share of picked passes, such as on an underneath ‘hot' throw intercepted by S Zach Smith. Another try going down the middle was caught by S Jonathan Banks and run back all the way. Relf also was bitten by the interception bug, most obviously when with an outside blitz coming from his left he tried to throw over the oncoming pressure. S Nickoe Whitley came in for the easy pick and return. CB Maurice Langston came up with one of Relf's passes too.

Though Tuesday was a full-pads practice, there was not nearly as much contact as in Saturday's scrimmaging and whistles sounded before much tackling could get done. As Mullen said, with camp at the half-way point the emphasis is shifting. "It was minimal installation," he said. "A little bit, but we're pretty much done with that. A lot of it is cleaning things up."

Most of the real Tuesday contact came in ground game drills, both 7- and 11-man teams with the three healthy running backs participating. RB Montrell Conner was held out again with the knee he hurt last Thursday in a non-hitting period. "They expect him on Thursday to practice," said Mullen. "They just said hey, one more day today and he'll be full-go Thursday."

Conner's snaps went instead to fellow redshirt LaDarius Perkins and the rookie took full advantage. He ran hard in 7-on-7 work, and ran for big yards in full-team periods. Three times in a short stretch he scooted between the tackles, got by the lone remaining linebacker guarding the middle, and was gone down the middle of the field. He was by far the most impressive back of Tuesday, which is more a reflection on the tight trio of healthy runners working at the moment.

"I don't know if there is one leading the race," Mullen said. "In our practice today you could see Robert Elliott was steady, doing some good things. Vick Ballard is doing some things. And LaDarious Perkins has that big-play ability when he gets in there, maybe not as consistently as the other two guys. But when he gets in the open field or has a little crease he can take it the distance.

Tuesday was a good test of offensive line resiliency after how the defense battered them much of Saturday. "They did OK today," Mullen said of the first line. The second group is still another matter with a few backup blockers not 100% healthy and others not yet settled into a clear niche. "And John (Hevesy) is mixing some guys in there, again like we did at quarterback, and see how they respond," Mullen said. "We put a freshman between two seniors and see the two seniors help him out and pull him along. That's just kind of us getting ready for some adversity during the season."

Of course most offensive adversity in spring has come from a more aggressive and even assertive defense. And if installation is basically done on the whole, Diaz did tip his hand a little today by showing more than the base pass defense. At one point early in 11-on-11 drills he came with a six defensive back package of first corners Corey Broomfield (cleared to practice but not yet hit) and Langston, and both the first and second pairs of safeties. #3 quarterback Riley Saunders was victimized by the unit for an interception.

With senior WLB K.J. Wright held out to take care of a turned left ankle, redshirt Deonte Skinner got to work all day with the first defense. The #2 unit now has Jamie Jones running at middle in most passing sets, and Brandon Wilson working against the run. Terrell Johnson and former safety Emmanuel Gatling are the second outside ‘backers, with Karlin Brown and Mike Hunt the next rotation.

As the second half of camp gets underway Mullen says he is happy with where the 2010 squad is. "Because mentally as a football team we're way ahead of where we were obviously this time last year. We're functioning at a much more efficient pace, we've put a lot more in than we put in last year in the spring. So I'm pleased with those things. We just need to keep taking steps and being much crisper in execution."

Mississippi State returns to practice Thursday. That session is part of the spring coaches clinic and Mullen said will be built around individual instruction. "And then come back with more team stuff on Friday." Of course most will be looking first for who comes back to take the first quarterbacking turns, too. Mullen is amused by questions of who is, or is not, the number-one at this practice point.

"The fans will get to see a good look at that on April 17, it will be a good competition and everybody has the opportunity to see it then. Then, we'll go into fall camp with it."

SIDE LINES: #2 defensive tackle James Carmon did not practice Tuesday. "He just tweaked his knee," said Mullen. "He was cleared to go today and just didn't feel comfortable on it, so he got to spend some time in the pit"… First DT Josh Boyd came back from a Friday knee-hurt to scrimmage Saturday, but today was unable to go very long. A long series of sideline-to-sideline jogs had to be more painful than practicing though. His place was taken with the first defensive line by Josh Jackson and Reggie Odom in-turn… After two weeks trying to find room at tackle, Templeton Hardy moved inside to practice with the second unit at left guard. He took the #2 slot that had been held by Gabe Jackson… Mullen had the normal annual-review meeting with athletic director Greg Byrne today. "It went pretty good. Greg and I have always had a great working relationship." Which makes sense given that it was Byrne who hired Mullen away from Florida in December 2008. Now the boss is the one who needs replacing after Byrne accepted the AD's job at Arizona with a May 1 starting date. "That's really too bad us losing him, that's really going to hurt our program. I know Dr. (Mark) Keenum will find somebody good to come in and fill his shoes, but he and had such a great working relationship. We could always bounce ideas off each other, back and forth."

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