By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Tyler Russell likes to hunt, so he’s well-versed in biding his time, waiting for the right moment to make his move. On the football field, that time is now.
The fourth-year junior is set to step to the fore of Mississippi State’s offense. After two years of sharing snaps with Chris Relf, Russell is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback for 2012, and he’s more than happy with that role.
“This will be a little different for me, to actually be named the starter and being able to lead the team and just do the things that I know I’m capable of doing,” Russell said last week. “It should be a lot easier for me to get in the rhythm and just knowing I have a senior-led wide receiving crop. It’s just going to be fun.”
Russell was the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year in 2008, after leading Meridian High School to the Class 5A state championship as a senior. Then he arrived at MSU and waited, taking a redshirt before stepping in behind Relf.
Dan Mullen’s spread offense was not tailored toward Russell’s strengths, because Relf was a mobile QB with limited passing ability. Russell has shown an ability to make all sorts of tough throws, and so the playbook this fall should be much more pass-friendly.
In fact, Russell said Mullen is making it a point to have him comfortable with what’s being called.
“He was telling me the other day, ‘You tell me what you like and what you don’t like. There’s no point in running something that you don’t like and you’re not comfortable with.’”
Russell has played in 18 games over two years with just two starts. Over that span, he’s completed 55.7 percent of his passes for 1,669 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those aren’t All-SEC numbers, but the prevailing theory is that being the full-time QB will allow Russell to blossom.
“I like to throw the ball,” he said, “and we changed a lot of stuff up that’ll help benefit me, and I really do believe that it’ll help benefit the team, too.”
“I’m going to be shocked if he isn’t one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” cornerback Johnthan Banks said.
Banks, a senior, has good reason to believe that claim. He said that during spring practices, he was able to fool Russell on certain coverages, but over the weeks the quarterback was able to figure things out.
“I know a little bit here and a little bit there that’ll get him,” Banks said. “But by the end of the spring he started picking me up. You could just see him grow. He’s kept growing and growing.”
Russell’s more prominent role will also require more leadership than has been required of him. After waiting his turn at Meridian, he did just fine in that department.
Once content to sit back and let Relf do the talking, Russell has eagerly assumed the duty of being the voice of the offense. He said it hasn’t been too difficult, “because I want the guys to know that Tyler’s going to give me everything he has in everything that we do. And when the guys see that you’re putting in 100 percent in everything, they’ll want to play for you.”
Russell got some good hands-on leadership experience in the spring with his offensive line. It’s a mix of veterans and newcomers, and Russell found himself helping the latter group along. It turned out to be a mutually beneficial exercise.
“They might have to make a ‘fire’ call or something. Well, they didn’t make it, so it was my job to point it out and tell them, all right, this is what you do,” Russell said. “So it’s really helping me out, and it’s making the offensive line better, and it’s making me better at the same time.”
Russell has come to understand the importance of constructive criticism. He used to take offense when Mullen would “get in your face and tell you you’re not doing a good job at all.” Russell came to realize, of course, that his coach was just trying to make him better.
He said he’s learned to trust Mullen, too, which has helped Russell remain patient the past three years. Now, he takes center stage, starting with a trip to Hoover, Ala., on Wednesday to take part in SEC Media Days.
“He was developing, he had his role, and he’s ready for it now,” strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis said. “He’s savoring the moment, I think. It just seems like he’s ready to go.”