August 29, 2013 11:40:02 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University coaching staff is teaching Tyler Russell in his fifth season like he's the contestant on a game show.
Play number one is a touchdown pass that could bring 70,000 fans to their feet and be the highlight on every national network. The same play is laced with the consequences of a drive-killing major mistake.
Play number two isn't as flashy, but it is guaranteed to get the offense another play and could produce positive results later in the game.
Russell could ignore both plays and go with an audible he feels comfortable, but that decision could backfire if one player doesn't hear or understand what is going on.
Those are the decisions that will fly through Russell's head at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (WKDH-WTVA/ESPN2) when the Mississippi State University quarterback leads his team against No. 13 Oklahoma State University in the Texas Kickoff Classic at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. His ability to determine which option is best likely will play a key role in getting MSU off to a solid start.
"The most important conversation I have with (MSU offensive coordinator) Les Koenning is about our philosophy and why I decided to call what I did on a specific play," Russell said. "It's not about the play call at all, but it's about why I thought it was important we try something in that situation."
In training camp, MSU's coaches typically have given Russell two plays and allowed the fifth-year senior to run one of the them when he gets to the line of scrimmage. Once Russell sees the defense, he has the responsibility to pick one play or to check into an audible based on a specific key in the defensive formation.
"The most common question I'm going over with coach Koenning is, 'OK Tyler, you can run that play you ran there, but you have to tell me why,' " Russell said. "It's never, 'Tyler, that was the wrong play,' but we're trying to get on the same page as to how we should be playing at this moment in the game."
The difference in how Russell is being treated on the field, in the meeting room, and by his teammates is drastically different from last year when he was entering his first season as the starting quarterback.
"Tyler and (MSU backup quarterback) Dak Prescott have been absolutely a pleasure to coach this preseason," Koenning said.
Words like "absolute pleasure" have replaced "frustration" when Koenning talks about the maturity of Russell, who was a Parade All-American at Meridian High School.
"There have been times when Tyler was a underclassman here where I could hear myself in a meeting room say, 'Now Tyler, you just can't do that there,' and he would say, 'But why coach? I can make that throw,' " Koenning said. "I want the quarterback to have that confidence, but it takes time to understand good and bad decisions with the football."
It has taken more than two years for Koenning to convince the 6-foot-4 Russell he doesn't possess super powers with his right arm.
"I think I look at the difference at how I played then and now and describe it this way. I'm know I'm not a superhero and there's certain situations nobody should put themselves in," Russell said.
The "situations" Russell refers to include some of the decisions he made in his four-interception performance in the loss to Northwestern University in the Gator Bowl in January.
"Dak and I were going to a FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meeting in our old meeting room before we had the new facility and we saw our fall camp grades from the coaches from last season," Russell said. "It's amazing to see how much further along both of us are compared to just a year ago. It proves the development is still happening and you can always improve."
Russell is one of the most decorated passers in school history after only 17 career starts. He is the school's all-time leader in passing efficiency (136.38), and is one passing touchdown away from the school record for passing touchdowns. He also ranks seventh all-time in career total offense (4,691), sixth in passing yardage (4,566), seventh in completions (339), third in completion percentage (.575), and holds 11 single-season school records.
"One comforting factor for us (is) we're going to play in a big game early having a fifth-year senior quarterback like Tyler Russell, who knows what is expected in big games," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "Him knowing what is expected as a leader when he steps out on the field is going to help us."
Russell's maturation and his ability to see the big picture showed itself earlier this month on a play in practice. With so many new faces at wide receiver, Russell has felt the need to point out a defensive nuance, but he hasn't out of leadership.
"There will be times I can see a mistake coming and where I should go over and say to a receiver, 'OK, this is going to happen, so remember to do this on your route,' but I don't because I want them to see it," Russell said. "I want them to see it develop before I say something as they're coming back to the huddle. What's the worst thing that'll happen in this practice? We have to run it again? Big deal."
There also have been times in training camp when Russell has shown he has taken the lessons from the meeting room and translated them to the field.
"Like today in practice where I checked into something that had nothing to do at all scheme wise with the two plays coach Koenning handed me before the snap," Russell said. "I remembered this one concept and thing from our film session that day and my audible worked, so everybody was happy."
When asked about Russell's audible in Tuesday's practice, Koenning said it was a perfect example of Russell's maturation.
"That's what we call player development," Koenning said. "If I can get my quarterback to be on the same page as me, coach Mullen and the other 10 guys he's on the field with, heck you, me, the guy in the fourth row can call plays for us. The result will be the same."