April 6, 2013 11:14:11 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The first spring scrimmage proved what receivers Mississippi State University quarterback Tyler Russell can trust.
It was clear from Saturday's 120-play scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium the Bulldogs senior signal caller was actively looking for the speed element of junior Jameon Lewis and the big target of sophomore Robert Johnson in the passing game.
After a slow start to the festivities for the first-team offense that included just two total first downs, Russell began to favor the duo on the outside to continually move the chains. Russell, who is MSU's only healthy scholarship quarterback option this spring, finished the afternoon 28 of 40 for 307 yards and six touchdown passes.
Lewis and Johnson accounted for a combined for 221 receiving yards mostly on catches either over the middle of the defense or bubble screens designed to produce several yards after the reception.
"If you look at it, those are the two you would expect to shine right now," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "Those are our two top returners coming back and those young guys really got to come up to speed."
Lewis, who has just 17 career catches in his first two seasons in Starkville, had three touchdowns Saturday including a 40-yard play where the 5-foot-8 receiver broke through the middle of the defense on a fly route for a score.
Lewis, an athlete from Tylertown who has been used in the return game, as opponents' wild cat quarterbacks and as a receiver, will likely be asked to fill the void in the slot left by Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens.
"Jameon is a guy that just makes plays, period," Russell said. "My job is just to get him the football somehow because then something is going to happen when he gets it. He's one of those special types of athletes."
Russell would find Lewis again for a 20-yard score down the sidelines after he got away from double coverage to find the end zone.
Johnson, who has been moved from receiver to tight end and now back to his more natural fit at wide receiver in his two seasons on campus, had some highlight catches as he out jumped defenders for eight catches and 78 yards.
With the loss of their top four receivers from last season, Russell knows he has to develop chemistry with a new group of athletes quickly. Senior-to-be tailback LaDarius Perkins is the leading returner in catches from 2012. with just 19.
"It is strange how myself, Joe (Morrow) and Jameon (Lewis) are guys that players in our group have to look up to," MSU sophomore wide receiver Robert Johnson said Tuesday. "There's a bunch of guys with motivation right now knowing we can earn a starting spot for next season."
Russell appeared to be in more shotgun looks during the scrimmage to work on some specific passing sets and the three-year starter was able to lead the first-team offense to 510 total yards in the second half on just 72 plays.
"There were momentum shifts throughout the scrimmage," Russell said. "We started with terrible field position early but we picked it up in the second half and we got to have that energy in the first and second halves."
In the beginning of the scrimmage, Mullen intentionally put the offense in bad field position to test their ability to at least get to midfield in a game-like atmosphere and was disappointed in how the offense reacted by going three-and-out on back-to-back drives.
"That's the ones that can't start slow," Mullen said. "Even if you're not scoring from some of those positions, you have to get a couple of first downs to flip the field and move the chains."
MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said he anticipated a slow start to the proceedings because Russell was instructed to run the given play call and disregard the defensive look. Checking out of a play call is something that Russell, as a fifth-year senior quarterback, will have more responsibility with in 2013 but Saturday was seen as a sorting out of the MSU playbook.
"It was a learning experience for him today," Koenning said. "I want him to go back and watch that film with us and say 'okay, on this look I think I'd check out what we had here and into this'. That's that maturity we're already seeing everyday out of him."
When MSU's first-team defense decided to double Lewis later in the game with a linebacker and cornerback, Russell found Fred Brown wide open for a 40-yard strike on the second drive of the second half.
"I think there were some easy throws out there for me but what I'm disappointed in right now is the throws that require touch that I didn't get perfectly with my receivers," Russell said. "That's why we're here in the spring. The chemistry with my guys will develop."
MSU junior Michael Carr, a former Dispatch player of the year selection, had 41 yards on three catches and a diving touchdown catch against the Bulldogs third-team defense filled with walk-ons. The former four-star prospect, who is now a preferred walk-on after leaving the program in the middle of the 2012 season, never saw a snap with either the first or second-team offensive unit.
Mississippi State will return to the practice field Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. and will work on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday this week before a 3 p.m. Friday scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium. Spring practices, all open to fans, will continue until the Maroon-White Spring Game on April 20 at 1 p.m.