In tight spots, tight ends deliver

By Brad Locke

STARKVILLE – Tight ends can often be a quarterback’s safety outlet. For Tyler Russell, they’re much more than that.
The Mississippi State QB has three tight ends he can count on, and they’ve all come through in big moments this season, never more so than in last week’s 41-34 win over Tennessee.
Senior Marcus Green caught six passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Malcolm Johnson made a spectacular 9-yard TD reception to seal the win. Sophomore Brandon Hill had a fourth-down catch in the second quarter.
On the season, those three have combined for 19 receptions, with 12 of those resulting in first downs. They’ve moved the chains twice on third-down plays and twice on fourth down.
“To have Malcolm back and the leadership that Green has brought to the team, and Brandon Hill has done a fantastic job, too. Those three guys are doing a really good job of catching the football and getting open for me,” Russell said.
MSU is now at full tight end capacity with the return of Johnson, who missed the first five games with a pectoral injury suffered during the summer. He had two catches for 34 yards on Saturday and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
“Holding Malcolm back is like holding a thoroughbred back,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “He wants to go play, wants to go run.”
band of brothers
“I felt so good to be back with my brothers,” Johnson said. “Words can’t explain. It was so emotional coming to the (pregame) Dawg Walk.”
Johnson’s first catch of the season was a 25-yarder in the second quarter, which helped set up MSU’s third touchdown of the game. On his TD, which came with 9 seconds left in the game, Russell lobbed the ball to where only Johnson could get it. He got it with one hand while getting one foot down in the back of the end zone.
“That’s just some of the things that Malcolm can bring to coach Mullen’s offense, just the versatility, the ability to do some things like that,” tight ends coach Scott Sallach said. “There’s a lot of great players out there, and some of them have the ability to do those things when the lights are on, and some struggle with it.
“And thankfully we have one that can do it when the lights are on.”
Green is the experienced one, the sixth-year senior who’s got a knack for finding the end zone. Five of his 13 catches have been touchdowns.
Hill, who had an ankle injury earlier this year, is coming along nicely. With all three healthy, Russell has loads of options.
“It’s hard to scheme against us, because we’re different, but we’ve got similar strengths,” Hill said. “We can all make plays, but we bring different things to the table, different looks for different occasions.”
brad.locke@journalinc.com