September 7, 2010 12:41:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Tyler Russell''s advent into college football was a reprieve for his lackluster play in Mississippi State''s spring game.
The redshirt freshman''s near-flawless performance Saturday in a 49-7 victory against the University of Memphis was the kind of offensive spree expected from a player who began college with star credentials. Tying a school-record four touchdown passes in his debut added stock to Russell''s growing confidence.
"It''s something I looked forward to after the spring game," Russell said. "I didn''t play well in the spring game, and I wanted to show what I can do in the first game."
But does Russell''s performance Saturday unseat starter Chris Relf?
MSU coach Dan Mullen expressed comfort Monday in Russell fulfilling his expectation of a strong, efficient display in the season opener.
And because of Relf''s productive game against Memphis, Mullen feels no reason to question if either quarterback is up to speed. Relf''s interception was the only knock in an otherwise perfect stat line, and Mullen was impressed by his ability to shake it off, saying "he didn''t have bad throw" outside of that throw
But he didn''t name a starter for the next game against Auburn at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN).
"We''ll see how practice goes," Mullen said. "They both played well in the game last Saturday, so I plan on us still playing both quarterbacks."
Mullen believes the ability for each quarterback to observe from the sideline is helping both of them grow. MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning believes the players'' performances Saturday will mean extra game-planning for Auburn''s defensive coaches.
"They''ll play and both those guys are deserving of playing," Koenning. "Coach has got a great rotation, or he might not have one. Those are our advantages when playing Auburn."
Koenning said Russell thought he was ready as a freshman and he wasn''t. Because of his success as a prep quarterback and familiarity with a shotgun-based offense, Koenning said Russell came in with confidence that clouded his perception of how he had to perform and direct the offense.
Russell''s spring game tape, in which he saw more mistakes than his two interceptions, was the perfect rude awakening.
"I can remember sitting in the room. We went through it (Russell would say), ''I got it, I got it, I got it,'' " Koenning said. "Well, ''I got it'' turned to, ''Oh no'' when he got on the field. That''s what happened in the spring game.
"He felt embarrassed about what happened. It has all to do with you understanding what we''re doing and how to run the offense. When he went out there this past week, he was very prepared, and he knew what he wanted to do. He had a plan in his mind."
Russell played a major role in receivers Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens eclipsing 100 yards receiving, though Mullen was quick to point out neither quarterback faced much pressure and both had wide-open receivers on their touchdown passes.
Repetitions at quarterback, in Mullen''s mind, follows the outline for the rest of the offense. At receiver, Heavens started over Bumphis but played 27 plays to the latter''s 31. Mullen estimated each tailback played 20 snaps, and guards Quentin Saulsberry, Tobias Smith, and Gabe Jackson rotated.
Keeping fresh legs in the game is necessary for the offense to operate at an ideal tempo, making the combo of Bumphis and Heavens effective despite splitting reps.
"You could see the difference that those guys were the most comfortable on the field at the receiver position on Saturday," Mullen said. "They''ve played a bunch of football, and if we can keep that rotation, I like it 50-50. You come out of the game with 31 plays to 27, you see that they''re both playing fast.
"With the speed we expect those guys to play, once you get over that 40-to 50-play mark, some fatigue can start to set in with how fast we expect them to play every play."
Russell now feels comfortable to get the nod in close, late-game situations where experience and confidence are needed. Whether he starts the game or plays in spots, the system builds his confidence by giving him looks against defenses and watching Relf play. He also has some experience in a two-quarterback system from when he was a sophomore at Meridian High.
"It''s really not a big deal for me when Chris goes in and he''s doing good," Russell said. "It gets my confidence up because I feel like if he''s doing good I should do good as well. We just feed off each other."
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