September 30, 2013 12:02:48 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Call it what you want -- controversy, dilemma, or decision.
Dan Mullen's choice of who will play quarterback for Mississippi State football team is a been-there, done-that scenario for Matt Wyatt.
Maybe only a few people around the MSU campus know some of the things quarterbacks Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott are thinking, feeling, and saying to each other. As he sits in the radio booth providing color commentary for MSU football games, Wyatt can reflect on a four-year career as a quarterback at MSU that saw him throw for 2,940 yards and take part in 30 victories. In that time, he saw both sides of the quarterback battle.
"Mississippi State fans have always made a quarterback battle a bigger deal than it really is," Wyatt said. "Don't misunderstand me because State fans are no different than anybody else. Everybody thinks there's this drama involved, and there's not."
MSU fans have added to that drama in the team's first four weeks. As MSU comes off a bye week and continues preparations for No. 10 LSU at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at Davis Wade Stadium, the topic of who will play quarterback for the Bulldogs has lingered with the program since the opener. In that game, a 21-3 loss to then-No. 13 Oklahoma State in the Texas Kickoff Classic in Houston, Russell suffered a concussion and gave way to Prescott. Concussion symptoms kept Russell out of the lineup for the next three weeks and gave Prescott a chance to impress in a victory against Alcorn State, a close loss at Auburn, and an easy victory against Troy.
Prescott's success in the 62-7 victory against Troy -- he threw, ran, and caught a touchdown and had 296 all-purpose yards -- has intensified the debate about who should start at quarterback.
Wyatt has heard a lot of that talk. On his daily sports radio show "Head to Head" with Richard Cross on Supertalk Mississippi, fans have called in to voice their support for Prescott, the sophomore who is averaging 231 yards of total offense per game.
The talk reminds Wyatt of his first year at MSU (1996) when local fans had grown tired of Derrick Taite and wanted Wyatt to lead the Bulldogs under then-head coach Jackie Sherrill. Wyatt finished the season with a better completion percentage (49.2), more touchdowns (seven), and fewer interceptions (three) than his senior counterpart. But Wyatt knew something most people on the outside didn't or couldn't see.
"I don't think Mississippi State is any different than a lot of places where the backup quarterback is the most popular person on campus at times," Wyatt said. "I remember 1996 when you could hear fans during games push me over Derrick. I knew Derrick was better than me, but, unfortunately, fans didn't know that, and, to some degree, I don't think they cared."
In 2013, fans can voice their opinions in many more ways. Wyatt didn't have to deal with paid message boards, talk radio, and social media outlets like Twitter. Still, he knows what it is like to go from being viewed as a savior behind center to the weak link on a team that went 7-4 and lost its final two games of the season.
"Fans were always great to me, and that's why I consider MSU a special place," Wyatt said. "I knew some of those same people that were nice were cussing me out on Saturdays during my sophomore year. I know because my friends would tell me after games it was rough for them to sit in the stands and watch fans say things about their buddy."
Russell has felt that same sting after losing six of his last seven starts, but Mullen has stood by his fifth-year senior. He said last week Russell would start against LSU. In his weekly media teleconference Sunday, Mullen said having two starting quarterbacks on his depth chart is a "good problem" to have.
"It's always going to change from game-to-game," Mullen said. "We'll figure that out on game day when we have the final plan ready for LSU."
Mullen acknowledged he felt more comfortable with Prescott now that he has made three starts. Prescott is fourth among Southeastern Conference quarterbacks in rushing and ninth among all players in total offense with 231 yards per game. The defenses he has faced in the last three games were a Football Championship subdivision opponent and units that are ranked 96th (Auburn) and 85th (Troy) in the nation.
"Tyler got cleared to play but it was late in the week and since Dak had taken all the live reps against the (first-string) defense, we thought we'd give Dak the start," Mullen said after the game against Troy. "Tyler had done seven on seven and scout team stuff but hadn't taken a live rep with the ones. That's what led to the decision."
Since 2000, MSU has had only one season (2003) in which its backup quarterback has had less than 300 yards in a season.
"Dan Mullen didn't plan on having Tyler miss the second half of the first game and then have it affect the next three games," Wyatt said. "He planned on playing Tyler Russell at Auburn and winning that game. There's a reason why Tyler Russell was your starter before he got hurt. If Dan flipped instantly to Dak, what would that say about his decision-making going into the season?"
Russell also has been a part of a quarterback discussion in 2011, when Mullen started him over senior Chris Relf in the second half of the sixth game of the season. After trailing Alabama-Birmingham 3-0 at halftime, Russell led MSU to a 21-3 victory. The then-sophomore went 11 of 13 for 166 yards and three touchdowns. The performance helped him earn starts against South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee-Martin, Alabama, and Arkansas before he suffered a season-ending injury that pushed Relf back into the lineup.
Russell and Relf weren't nearly as close off the field as Russell has grown with Prescott in the past year. The two will go to Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at MSU and often work on footwork or route tree drills after practice.
"(Tyler has) been behind me and I've been behind him 100 percent," Prescott said. "We're working together and getting better every day."
As a junior, Wyatt made three starts while battling Wayne Madkin for the starting quarterback job. A year earlier, Wyatt had six touchdowns and 15 interceptions, so MSU fans weren't interested in seeing him on the field, and he didn't need to be told what the problem was. In 1998, Wyatt knew he was giving way to Madkin because Sherrill wanted more consistency from his quarterback if the Bulldogs had a chance to win the Southeastern Conference's Western Division.
"I knew why they were benching me, and I didn't need to hear it from fans," Wyatt said. "That's not the case with Tyler and Dak. You had a starting quarterback get hurt and then a backup play great for three weeks. This situation is completely different to mine."
In his final season at MSU, Wyatt started one game and played in 10 and was part of a team that reached the SEC championship game against No. 1 Tennessee. He said his ability to handle the back-and-forth nature of playing quarterback had a role in some of the Bulldogs' success.
"You put the team first," Wyatt said. "The team has to come first because I knew that whole deal could've fractured the team. You learn to compartmentalize being mad at yourself if you're not in there instead of being mad at the coaching staff."
Wyatt says honesty is the best policy for everybody at MSU.
"In my final year, I had coaches and, specifically with Sparky Woods, that would sit me down man-to-man and tell me who was starting and why I wasn't or was getting the call," Wyatt said. "I promise you that's the best case scenario for anybody in that situation because if your coach is being honest with you, you feel as a player you can support the decision, even if you disagree with it. The worst case is when the coach won't talk to you about it and everything is coded."
Mullen has avoided any confusion by saying Russell will lead MSU when he's healthy.
"I've never had a quarterback controversy in all my years coaching, (and) I've never had a tailback controversy, linebacker controversy, or any of that," Mullen said. "You do your job when we tell you to run on the field and do it. Perception is always different than reality."
Wyatt's job as a broadcaster has allowed him to see how Mullen has handled his quarterbacks, and he said he "applauds Mullen" for how he hasn't allowed a quarterback controversy to take control of the program.
"The quarterback position is different than any other position or depth chart on the offense because you can't play more than one," Wyatt said. "I like when Mullen says we prepare multiple quarterbacks at MSU because it's a position where you're constantly on edge to play. I know I was."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.