Russell Ready To Lead After Years Of Waiting
By Bob Carskadon
Parade All-American. Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi. State champion. The supposed "savior" of Mississippi State football.
Then, redshirted. Third string. Part-time player. Injured.
Now, finally, Tyler Russell is ready to take over as the MSU quarterback in his junior season. For the first time since he got to campus in 2009, he's the leader. He's the starter. And it's all on his shoulders.
"I've waited a long time for this," Russell said. "I've worked very hard, and have become a leader on and off the field and it is finally time for me to be that guy."
His head coach Dan Mullen said he expects plenty out of his signal caller in 2012, but he's been more impressed than anything with how Russell handled the process of becoming "that guy."
Mullen recalled the hype surrounding Russell when he got to campus as a part of his first signing class in 2009, saying that everyone from fans to media had anointed the 6'4" freshman as the immediate starter. Then, over the next few years, Russell patiently waited in the wings while Chris Relf led the offense and those outside the program wondered why Russell hadn't been able to take over yet,
"'Why aren't you playing? Why'd you redshirt?' There's an awful lot of pressure that comes along with all these outside distractions," Mullen said. "He hasn't let that affect him. He's really worried about his development, his progress as a quarterback. I expect him to have a huge year."
As for the actual quarterbacking, the play on the field, Mullen said Russell's path to being a starter, no matter how different than expected, has prepared him to be ready to take the starting job.
While he hasn't started many games, the junior QB has played in plenty and he's been learning the offense long enough that very little this fall will be new or surprising to him.
As Mullen said, "He's played in almost every stadium in the league, so the stage won't be too big."
Russell has stood in the pocket and taken hits from Alabama and LSU defenses. In the first game he ever played, against Memphis in 2010, he threw five touchdowns - as the backup.
"This is his first time as full-time starter," Mullen said. "But he comes in with a lot of confidence and a lot of experience. I think he's developed himself exactly how you'd want a quarterback to develop at this point."
That confidence, too, had to be developed. According to senior cornerback Johnthan Banks, it was like working out your muscles. In order to build that confidence up, it had to be broken down.
Banks watched it happen as they came in together back in 2009.
"He's a grown man now," Banks said. "He was a little boy. He was a little cocky. He had just beat South Panola in the state championship. But he's grown up, he's humbled himself. You can just tell by talking to him. You can just see him grow."
The difference for Russell this year, as he showed in spring practices, is his ability to be the leader Mullen wants him to be. With Russell the unquestioned starter for the first time, with no one in front of him on the depth chart, the path, as they say, is clear.
When Banks was asked if Russell had become the leader of the offense, he took it one step further, saying Russell has become the leader of the entire team. Junior All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson agrees.
"He has pretty much taken over," Jackson said. "He has demanded more of everyone. He's doing extra things and working hard, going out throwing balls. I feel like he is more of a vocal leader than he has been in the past. He has always been the type to work hard and to be a leader, but he has done a better job this year of stepping up and taking control."
Naturally, leadership comes with both responsibility and expectations. Though, as Mullen said, Russell is used to expectations and pressure.
Asked about setting records and becoming the face of a brand new offense at MSU, Russell shrugged it off.
"As long as I stay in the film room and do what I'm supposed to do," Russell said, "everything else will take care of itself. I'm not really worried about what other people say or any kind of pressure or anything like that. I've got five senior wide receivers. My job is easy."
In addition to those pass-catchers, Russell said "Our offensive line has done a really good job in the spring. We have a lot of running backs that can step in and make plays. So, from a standpoint of what is Tyler Russell going to do, it's really easy for me. I have a lot of weapons and all I have to do is get the ball in the playmakers hands and everything should take care of itself."
In the spring, Russell was often seen exchanging words with his offensive teammates after plays broke down or didn't work out. Sometimes the coaching moments were more intense than others. However, when asked about the miscues by linemen or receivers afterwards, Russell always put the blame on himself, deflecting any negativity from his teammates.
Russell's actions on the field - verbal, mental and physical - will go a long way in determining how successful the Bulldogs will be.
Russell isn't scared of that pressure, and his teammates and coaches aren't worried about dropping that weight on him.
"Without the quarterback, the team really ain't nothing," Banks said. "I hate to put all the pressure on Tyler, but Tyler will be the key to our season. No disrespect to none of our other guys, but Tyler could be one of the best quarterbacks to come through Mississippi State if he puts his mind to it. He's putting the hard work in, now he's gotta apply it to the field."
Said Mullen, "There's a great deal of trust between him and our coaching staff that he knows we're going to turn the keys over to him, put it on his shoulders, let him go, give him control of the offense, have a lot of input in decision making, give him a lot of freedom in play-calling at the line of scrimmage, to put a lot on him that way that there is that trust in him. I give him credit because he's developed himself to be ready to be in that role right now."
Sure, it's a lot of pressure for someone who is also trying to get through mid-terms and homework, but Russell has come a long way from the "little boy" who was supposed to save the program.
"It's time to be that guy that the young guys can count on and they can look up to and finally being able to lead the team," Russell said.