AUBURN UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL: Unlike Auburn, MSU’s quarterback race is far from over

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series previewing Auburn’s 2010 football opponents. This week: Mississippi State (Sept. 9). The series will run weekly.

Mississippi State finished second place to Auburn in the race to acquire Cameron Newton’s signature.

Unlike the Tigers, the Bulldogs now have an unsettled, two-man quarterback competition that might not have existed had Newton signed on with his former offensive coordinator at Florida, second-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.

And, unlike Auburn’s coaches, who were bent on finding “the guy” as soon as possible in order to enhance the chemistry of the offense, Mullen appears to be just fine having two quarterbacks coming out of spring. He probably won’t have any trouble using both Chris Relf and Tyler Russell against Auburn under the lights in September, either.

“If both of these guys were the same, I could see random issues arising with having two quarterbacks,” Mullen told ESPN.com in April. “But they’re not the same. They have different skill sets and bring different things to the table. We’ll play to the strengths of each player. I don’t see that as a controversy.”

Relf, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior, brings versatility and experience to the Bulldogs’ offense. He played in all but two games last season (suspension), splitting time with graduated Tyson Lee, and completing 22 of his 41 pass attempts for 283 yards and five touchdowns. He did more damage through the Bulldogs’ non-stop assault on the ground, rushing for 500 yards on 76 carries and two scores.

Relf was a star in last year’s Egg Bowl upset over Ole Miss, rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown in the 41-27 rout. His focus this spring turned to passing, though, as the Bulldogs hope to embrace the pass-happy spread offense Mullen employed in his days as the offensive coordinator at Florida.

The early returns were strong, as Relf reportedly exited the spring as the slight leader in the quarterback battle that might not actually be a battle. Relf saw the majority of work with the first-team offensive line in Mississippi State’s Maroon and White game, completing 13 of his 24 passes for 184 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Russell, meanwhile, went through his fair share of growing pains throughout the spring. A former Mr. Football and Parade All-American from Meridian, Russell spent his entire freshman season on the sidelines watching Relf and Lee, somewhat to the dismay of Bulldog fans who originally thought he could contribute right from the start.

Now, as a redshirt freshman, Russell is the more “pro-style” quarterback of the duo. He had a rough outing in front of a record crowd at the spring game, as he was intercepted twice, sacked three times and completed less than half of his passes (12-of-27) for 125 yards.

“In the spring game and spring practice, you see the things you do good and you see the things you do bad,” Russell told the Starkville Dispatch. “Coaches threw a lot on us to see what we could retain, and you make your evaluations from there.”

Mississippi State’s strong finish to a 2009 season that featured the toughest schedule in the FBS has prompted Mullen to say the Bulldogs expect nothing less than a bowl appearance in 2010. They return seven starters on offense and eight on a defense that had its share of struggles in 2009, but is under new supervision with the arrival of Manny Diaz as the team’s defensive coordinator.

The Bulldogs’ defensive line might be their biggest strength. Defensive end Pernell McPhee was named to the 2010 Lombardi Watch List after a junior season in which he led the Bulldogs with 12 tackles for loss. Tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd both saw significant playing time as freshmen in 2009 and have each added weight during the offseason.

They’ll be joined by 345-pound nose tackle James Carmon, a junior-college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who has drawn plenty of comparisons to former Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody, who also played at MGCCC. Carmon, though, has bristled at them, instead hoping to create his own identity.

“Look at me and look at him,” Carmon told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “The weight shows. I think I can run. I can get sideline to sideline. I’m not just a gap-filler.”

The Bulldogs’ biggest gap to fill will be at tailback, where Mullen is in search of a replacement for Anthony Dixon. Dixon led the SEC in rushing in 2009, compiling 1,391 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns.

Junior-college transfer Vick Ballard might be first in line. He received the most carries in the spring game in front of redshirt freshmen Montrell Conner and LaDarius Perkins.

“When you have a guy like Anthony Dixon that you can give the ball to 30-some times a game, and he walks away, you’d better have some depth,” Mullen said in an April Mississippi Press article. “I think we found some depth at the running back position, guys we feel comfortable putting in the game.”

agribble@oanow.com | 737-2561

Auburn at Mississippi State
When:
Sept. 9
Where: Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.
2009 Record: 5-7
Final Ranking: None
Bowl: None
Returning starters: 17
All-Time Record vs. AU: 23-58-2
Last Meeting: 2009 (AU won, 49-24, in Auburn)

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