September 3, 2010 10:26:00 AM
When the Mississippi State and University of Memphis football teams square off Saturday, they''ll do so with similar situations at quarterback.
Memphis will debut first-year starter and sophomore Cannon Smith, whom first-year head coach Larry Porter hopes will play well enough to help the Tigers avoid having to use a multi-quarterback carousel like they did last season.
MSU has a slight advantage, as junior Chris Relf scored seven touchdowns and finished second on the team in rushing last season.
Smith was named Memphis'' starter this week after beating out true freshman Ryan Williams in a neck-and-neck competition in fall camp. Mississippi State has yet to name a starter at quarterback, though Relf is expected to get the starting nod over redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, whom MSU coach Dan Mullen said will play regardless of who starts.
What separates Mullen and Porter in their similar quarterback situations is the current state of their respective teams. The Bulldogs are 21-point favorites who are expected to challenge for a bowl spot. The Tigers went 2-10 last season and are in a rebuilding state with a new head coach. With a sophomore and freshman as the top two options under center, Porter has more leeway to tinker with the offense while thinking long-term. That said, Mullen is the coach adamant on playing two quarterbacks.
"I think the first game we will play more than one quarterback," Mullen said Monday. "A lot of that is because we have limited experience coming back in that position with Chris. We have to get experience in that position and our plan is to see more than one quarterback in the game Saturday."
Saturday''s game would be a good opportunity for Porter to test both of his quarterbacks against a Southeastern Conference defense in a sellout environment, but the former Tigers running back is taking a different approach, opting to develop continuity between Smith and the receivers.
"I''d like for a guy to get settled and manage the offense and put us in a position to be productive," Porter said. "Again, if the situation presents itself to where I think we need a different pace, we''ll definitely play Ryan, but that''s not our plan (to play both quarterbacks)."
Smith, who transferred from Miami (Fla.), has just two collegiate passes under his belt and an entire cast of new faces in the backfield. He''s described as a scrambler, while Williams is a taller, strong-armed quarterback who could provide a change of pace to the offense.
The situation in Starkville, once again, mirrors that of the Tigers, as the Bulldogs replace three senior running backs and have two quarterbacks with different skill-sets. State''s spread offense utilizes option plays, which Relf worked for 500 rushing yards last season. But he''s got a strong arm and has drawn praise for his improved skills as a passer this offseason. What will be interesting is how much the play calls change when Russell is in the game. The former all-American prep quarterback isn''t as polished of a runner as Relf, though the freshman insists he can be an effective runner in the scheme.
"I feel much more comfortable this year than I did last year," Russell said earlier in camp. "The biggest thing was just getting stronger. I know I''m not going to out-run a lot of these SEC defenses, so a lot of it came down to getting stronger and getting used to the running plays. I ran similar option plays in high school, so it wasn''t that big of an adjustment from that standpoint."
Similarities and differences aside, Saturday''s game will have both team''s quarterbacks under a critical microscope.