Mississippi State will (allegedly) be more of a passing team this year than it has been in a long time, and the primary reason for that is Tyler Russell. That's according to me and most everybody else. That's not according to Russell.
During his appearance at SEC Media Days a couple of weeks ago, the junior quarterback talked of himself as being merely one of many pieces on offense, which he is, but he's the biggest piece. More than once, he spoke of his receivers and other position groups before speaking of himself.
"I would say just knowing we have five senior wide receivers that have played, that can go make plays, that's probably the biggest thing," Russell said. "You have about four really good running backs that can step up and make plays as well. When you have the wide receivers and running backs, and you can stick me in there, and you have a great offensive line, and you have a really good defense, we're looking for some big things this year."
You see how Russell just slipped himself into the quote, almost as an afterthought? He was also asked specifically about this being more of a pass-first offense, and Russell again talked about his receivers, backs and offensive line; didn't mention himself at all. Maybe this is just a result of good media training, or maybe it speaks to a healthy amount of humility, which tells us that Russell is not an ego-driven player. And considering how long he's quietly awaited his turn, splitting time with Chris Relf the past two years in an offense not best-suited to Russell's strengths, it's not surprising to hear him talk this way.
We've all heard stories of QBs who think too highly of themselves and blame others when things go wrong. Certainly you want your quarterback to be confident and maybe a little arrogant, but Russell is not lacking the former quality. He's always been a confident sort, but he just doesn't let that self-assurance morph into self-absorption.
Russell came to State in 2009 with a lot of players who are currently seniors; he redshirted, so he has two years remaining. Being so close to his fellow '09ers, Russell seems more concerned with sending them out on top than with being an elite SEC quarterback.
"We were coach (Dan) Mullen's first recruiting class, so we definitely want to end on a good note, and for the guys that are seniors and this is their last season, I want to do everything I can, because I know they're not going to get this time back."
Even if he doesn't want to talk much about it, Russell is the centerpiece of this offense. How well MSU can perform in the passing game depends most heavily upon his arm. He does have good tools around him, which every QB needs, but Russell is more well-equipped than recent MSU quarterbacks to get the most out of those tools.
He has a chance over the next two years to rewrite the school's record book. Let's face it: MSU's passing records are hardly formidable, especially for a talent like Russell. He has 1,669 career passing yards, and Wayne Madkin's career mark of 6,336 is well within reach for Russell, who would have to average 2,334 yards over the next two seasons to eclipse that – no problem (the single-season passing yards record is 2,422 by Dave Marler). Derrick Taite has the record for career touchdown passes with 38; Russell has 13, and frankly, I could see him breaking Taite's mark this year (which would also break Taite's single-season record of 16).
Russell was asked about putting his name in the record book, and in keeping with form, he completely sidestepped the question.
"Definitely, I wanted to come to Mississippi State and help turn the program around with the guys," he said. "We were in coach Mullen's first recruiting class, so we're all hungry and ready to go, and we're ready for the season."
Russell has certainly helped turn the program around. Now's the time for him to lead it into new frontiers. Just don't expect him to take credit for it.