By MATTHEW STEVENS
For the first time since he took the head-coaching position at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen left the spring game happy with the performance of multiple players behind center.
All three quarterbacks put up quality numbers Saturday with senior Chris Relf, junior Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dylan Favre all accounting for every touchdown scored in the first half of play.
Relf, who has been working with the first team all spring after being named the 2011 Gator Bowl Most Valuable Player on New Year’s Day, led his Maroon team on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that took just over three minutes off the game clock. Relf pounded the ball in the end zone from 1 yard out for the game’s first touchdown.
“Chris was as crisp and sharp as he’s been all spring,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s played a lot of games in this stadium and will play in a bunch more this next year and so we didn’t think he needed to be out there much.”
For the first time in MSU career, Relf only played in the first two possessions and was able to watch the rest of the spring game action on the sidelines.
“I’ve been working on all spring going out there and executing on that first drive,” Relf said. “I feel like I’m experienced enough and it felt good watching the young guys play.”
Favre led the Maroon team to a 23-20 victory Saturday afternoon in the annual spring game that saw offensive numbers comparable to a 7-on-7 drill. It was his 59-yard drive in the fourth quarter that put the Maroon team up for good with 1:19 left in the game after a 2-yard touchdown rumble from fullback Sylvester Hemphill.
“I was talking to Dylan and he said he doesn’t lose but I sure did feel like going out there and reminding him,” Relf said. “He won the game for us and give him all the credit for that.”
Favre, the 2010 Mr. Football selection in the state of Mississippi, finished his first ever action at Davis Wade Stadium with 240 total yards and was 17-for-26 for 199 through the air. The former St. Stanislaus star is projected to go into the summer workouts as the third-string signal caller behind returnees Relf and Russell but took a majority of the snaps for the Maroon squad in the final three quarters of action Saturday to get the freshman experienced at the speed of Southeastern Conference defenses.
“As soon as I think I know (the offense) Coach Mullen and Koenning will hit me with a question that I don’t know the answer to,” Favre said. “In high school, I played with the mentality that I wanted to score a touchdown every time I touched the ball. That doesn’t work here in the SEC.”
Favre’s first action in front of a spring game record announced crowd of 36,357 at Scott Field was actually intended to be at receiver when he lined up out wide and was the target of a throwback pass from Relf.
The trick play fell incomplete and Favre was sent back to the sidelines until he was under center at the beginning of the second quarter.
Despite his White squad’s offensive line having problems that would result in the Russell being sacked four times, the former Parade All-American ended with a team-high 210 yards through the air and a 14-yard touchdown pass to freshman Malcolm Johnson, State’s new converted tight end, to end the first half of play.
“The nice things about (Russell) today was he had ups and downs but continued to have ups and downs,” Mullen said. “With his experience, you could see there were things he wasn’t going to let bother him now.”
The last time Russell had this much action at Scott Field was the 2010 season-opening win against Memphis when the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder threw four touchdowns in a 49-7 victory over the Tigers.
“You evaluate what you do here and go to work during the summer on your faults at the position,” Russell said. “My football was good and I’ve really tried to help the young guys out in making sure I make things easier for them this spring.”
Russell, who one year ago, said he was impressed with play of the 5-foot-10 Favre as the two go into the summer competing for the backup role behind Relf.
“Dylan handled himself very well today,” Russell said. “He did some great things that the team needed today and made some great throws in critical situations.”
The only concern offensively coming out of the spring include essentially the same questions at the beginning of the practices about replacing major contributors on the offensive line, including left tackle Derek Sherrod.
“What happens as a quarterback is if you start getting hit early then you start worrying about everything else around you on the field,” Mullen said. “I didn’t see any glaring issues with either of (the left tackles vying for the starting job including James Carmon and Blaine Clausell). They’ve got 29 more practices to improve so we’ll probably figure that out on the night before the (2011 season-opening) Memphis game.”
The defense, which had dominated previous scrimmages throughout the spring practices this month, had individual highlights including the play of the two projected starting defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. The duo combined for two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
“We got that gang mentality on every play,” Cox said. “We’re just all about competing against each other every day and getting in that film room to see what we can’t after every play.”
The first turnover was caused by sophomore linebacker Deontae Skinner intercepting a Russell pass on the first play of the second half.
In the fight for the three replacements at linebacker for Bulldogs, senior Brandon Wilson shined by leading the White team in tackles with five.
“I think we as a group executed as well as expected in front of 36,000-plus going into the summer,” Wilson said. “I think we came pretty far (as a linebackers unit) this spring with bringing in (new LB coach Geoff) Collins and having that intensity he demands we play at right now.”