With the way Mississippi State’s quarterback room is loaded, we’re going to be asking a lot of “what ifs” about these guys.
What if Dan Mullen had stayed and Keytaon Thompson or Jaylen Mayden got the chance to develop and actually play for the coach they intended to play for? What if Joe Moorhead had been given another season or two and Garrett Shrader was given the opportunity to continue leading his offense?
But one of my favorite hypothetical situations when it comes to Mississippi State quarterbacks centers around a quarterback from a few years back and MSU’s current head coach.
Tyler Russell, arguably the most underrated quarterback in Mississippi State’s history, was something of a fish out of water in Dan Mullen’s offense. He was a pass-first quarterback playing for a coach who operated a run-heavy offense.
That said, Russell was still incredibly productive for the Bulldogs (especially compared to MSU’s relatively bleak history of quarterback play). Under Mullen’s run-heavy, spread option offense, Russell threw for 5,441 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career.
But what if Russell was able to play under a coach whose offense would fully maximize his talents? What if Russell was able to play for Mike Leach? How would a prototypical pass-first quarterback performed while playing for an air raid offense guru?
Let’s look back at the 2012 Mississippi State football season, Russell’s most successful year in Starkville.
In 2012, Russell threw for 2,897 yards (the third most passing yards in a single season in school history) and 24 touchdowns (the third most passing touchdowns in a single season in school history) while completing 58.6% of his passes (the sixth best completion percentage in a season in school history).
Russell was a productive quarterback for Mississippi State in 2012. But the offense he was running wasn’t exactly the best fit for him.
Mullen’s offense is predicated on spreading defenses out and running the ball, often utilizing option components. Historically, Mullen’s offense is run most effectively when he has a quarterback who is a running threat.
Russell was, well, very clearly not a running threat.
Mississippi State had essentially an even split of running and throwing plays on offense in 2012. That wouldn’t be the case in an air raid offense, a system that is built to take full advantage of quarterback’s throwing abilities.
Leach’s offense would do just that.
In 2019, Washington State averaged 54.6 passing attempts per game. In 2012, Mississippi State averaged 32.6 passing attempts per game.
While there’s no guarantee that a significant increase in passing attempts would work with Russell, it is worth noting that his best performances during the 2012 season came as he threw nearly 40 passes in a game.
At Kentucky, Russell completed 23 of 39 attempts for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. At LSU, he completed 26 of 38 attempts for 295 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Against Tennessee, Russell completed 23 of 37 attempts for 291 yards and a couple more touchdowns.
Russell would obviously have more chances to throw quite a few passes in Mike Leach’s famed air raid scheme.
But while all of that may seem a bit preposterous, the actual “what if” question is this:
What if Dan Mullen had been willing to significantly change how his offense operated to maximize the talents of the quarterback who, at the time, was arguably the most promising quarterback MSU had ever had?
Prior to Dak Prescott’s remarkable career, Russell was on an upward trajectory and had put together an impressive (especially by MSU’s fairly bleak quarterback standards) 2012 season.
At the time, it was one of the most impressive single season performances by a Mississippi State quarterback.
How would the 2012 season played out if Mullen had radically altered his offense to best take advantage of what Russell was able to do?
In 2012, the Bulldogs threw the ball 50% of the time.
I’d argue that wasn’t enough with the quarterback and the wide receivers State had at the time.
But at the end of the day, we’ll never know what this would potentially look like. We don’t have a time machine and even if we did, good luck convincing Mullen to drastically adjust his offensive strategy in 2012.
Although if you do find yourself able to do that, go take a stop in 2015 and get Mullen to allow his quarterback to throw 50+ times a game then too.
In back-to-back weeks, Will Rogers has completed 86 passes with a 76.1% completion percentage and has thrown for 776 yards and 4 touchdowns. MSU’s young quarterback has given State fans a glimpse at what Leach’s offense is capable of.
The result was disappointing, but Mississippi State fans should be proud of how a depleted roster led by young players performed Saturday.
Maybe Mike Leach’s friendship with Lane Kiffin will take the edge off the 2020 Egg Bowl. Or maybe because it’s 2020 and it’s the Egg Bowl everything will be a disaster.