January 2, 2013 9:06:14 PM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A decision by the Mississippi State University is looming less than two months from now when spring practice begins: Who will be taking snaps from behind center in 2013?
Before the final month of the recently 2012 campaign, the response was a simple and emphatic answer: Tyler Russell.
The junior's quarterback performance while MSU (8-5) lost five of its last six games, including a career-high four interception outing in a 34-20 loss to Northwestern University in the 2013 Gator Bowl, has left some to question whether the Bulldogs coaching staff will turn to redshirt freshman Dak Prescott in a more prominent role next season.
Following his first bowl game start where he completed just 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns but four turnovers, Russell was not made available to the media. After the contest and his 2012 season were over, Russell headed straight to the team bus and didn't say a word to anybody on the way out of EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
Prescott did see action in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day but his participation mirrored the previous occasions of the 2012 regular season where he'd come in on short-yardage situations to use his 240-pound frame on straight ahead runs.
The question becomes does MSU coach Dan Mullen split the repetitions during this upcoming spring practice and allow for an open competition for the starting position between Russell and Prescott?
"Nobody likes to lose," Mullen said after the loss. "Everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you. But we've got to do a better job as coaches and we've got to make sure we continue to put kids in position to win."
Mullen dismissed the idea of going to Prescott in a full-time capacity during the 2013 Gator Bowl after the second and third interception by Russell. MSU found itself down to No. 21 Northwestern (10-3) just 13-10 at halftime in Jacksonville despite Russell already having committed three turnovers.
"I told them in the locker room guys are going to have off days," Mullen said. "Here's the great thing. He had an off day, and there were still some opportunities there for us in the fourth quarter to go win the game. So great learning moment for young guys."
Mullen said he was committed to Russell taking a majority of the snaps throughout the game due to his experience and being the most prepared to run MSU's pass orientated spread offense. Russell finished the season leading the MSU offense to nearly every season-long mark in the school record book including 2,897 yards through the air and 24 touchdowns.
"That's why I told him get into the locker room (that) we're in here (and) we're still going to stick with it and throw the ball," Mullen said. "So get in there, get ready to go, come out again, get refreshed and go make plays because my confidence in you hasn't diminished because of what's happened in the past that's for sure."
MSU was unable to establish any consistent physical dominance over a smaller Northwestern front seven defense in the run game despite both junior tailback LaDarius Perkins and redshirt freshman Josh Robinson both averaging over four yards a carry.
"I was talking to Tyler, he was telling me I got to get going because he said he was struggling a little bit," Perkins said after the loss. "He was like 'get the guys going' and we'd try to keep moving, pick it up some."
As typical of Mullen's preparation in the first few weeks of bowl preparation, Prescott got a majority of the snaps with the younger players as Russell watched with a protective boot around his injured right ankle. However, when it was time to install the game plan for Northwestern, Russell was back to full strength and taking a majority of the first-team snaps from center.
Whether there's a competition at quarterback this spring in Starkville or not, Russell will have the clear experience advantage as Prescott has yet to start a college football game and attempted just 29 passes in his first season of action. The lamen thought surrounding Prescott is his bigger frame and a higher level of comfort with running the football could lead to more options for the Bulldogs spread-option attack in 2013.
The 2012 season was the first time Mullen has had a quarterback attempt at least 90 percent of the team's passes in a season since his final season as offensive coordinator at the University of Florida in 2008. In that national championship season in Gainesville, Fla., Mullen had former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow throw 298 of the team's 328 passes despite the Gators having a backup named Cameron Newton.
"Tyler had a good year this year for me (and) I expect Tyler to have even a better year next year," Mullen said on Dec. 7. "I expect him to take it to another level. Him and Dak working together and pushing each other should be pretty exciting."