By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – During scrimmage work last Friday, Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell dropped back, looked downfield, and saw nothing open. So he dumped a short pass to tailback LaDarius Perkins for an 11-yard gain.
That’s a read Russell, a rising junior, hasn’t always made in the past. His tendency has been to use his cannon of a right arm to launch the ball downfield, even if that wasn’t the best option.
“When we first got here, we couldn’t even get him to throw something short. Everything was deep,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “Now, he’s working on it.”
Russell split time the last two seasons with Chris Relf, but the job is now his to lose. In two seasons, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 1,669 yards, 13 TDs and 10 interceptions.
Last season, after taking over in the second half at UAB and rallying the Bulldogs to victory, Russell started four of the next five games.
Russell, who’s entering his fourth year in the program, believes his experience has taught him the value of being patient and not going for the home run every time.
“I think now, as I’ve matured,” he said, “I’m able to sit back and say, ‘OK, Tyler, it’s first down. What do you want to do right here? Do you want to get some yards on first down, second down take a shot? If you don’t get it, it’s third down and five.’
“It’s managing the game, and at times (Friday) I felt like I did that, and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes when you take that shot, you capitalize on it and it builds your confidence.”
Russell actually should have more opportunities this year to hit big plays, especially with redshirt freshman Joe Morrow (6-4, 205) entering the rotation. Tight end Malcolm Johnson has also proved capable of getting downfield – he was second on the team last fall with 18.7 yards per catch.
“Sometimes you go through your reads and you have a guy one-on-one,” Russell said. “You take a shot because Joe Morrow is out there and you like your matchups. It’s little things like that.
“It’s not, oh my gosh, I have to get the ball away, I have to throw it deep. It’s none of that. Every time I do throw the ball deep, I’m making the right read.”
One point coaches have stressed to Russell is mixing things up. He’s had a tendency to quickly go back to a play that worked, and that results in the defense sniffing it out.
That’s just part of managing the game. He’s got plenty of weapons around him, both in the running back and receiving groups, and doesn’t have to do it all himself.
Russell said that dump-off pass to Perkins was his fourth or fifth progression, and that’s what coaches like to see.
“It’s about moving the football, getting first downs, and taking your shots when you get them,” Koenning said. “You can’t take a shot every time. You take a shot every time, it’s feast or famine.
“You start taking and going through your reads and checking it down, you’re going to move the football. And that’s the key to throwing the football.”