That never transpired, but Russell will still be competing against Newton. Just on different teams.
Auburn and Mississippi State kick off the SEC season on Thursday night at Scott Field (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
In their respective debuts last week, Newton and Russell combined for nine touchdowns and 612 yards of total offense, and they either set or tied school records in the process.
“A lot of people were curious to see what I was all about,” said Newton, who at one point thought he would finish his college football career at Mississippi State, but ultimately decided on Auburn.
“I think I put on a performance that gave people somewhat of an idea what I could do, but the bar is set high with this offense and what we’re capable of doing. I can tell you we were far from reaching our goal and that there’s a lot more out there for us.”
All Newton did in his first game in an Auburn uniform was account for five touchdowns (three passing and two rushing) to go along with 357 yards of total offense in the Tigers’ 52-26 win over Arkansas State. Newton set a school record for a quarterback with 171 rushing yards, including a 71-yard touchdown.
Some of Newton’s 15 carries were designed runs, but he also improvised when nothing was there.
It’s exactly what Auburn coach Gene Chizik envisioned when he went after Newton last year out of junior college.
“I don’t want to say I’m surprised because I knew he was gifted as an athlete, but it was good to see him when he had those opportunities to do what we thought he could do,” Chizik said. “What was most impressive to me in his debut was that he protected the football, both running and passing, and he managed the offense.”
Russell’s debut at Mississippi State was equally impressive. Coming of the bench and sharing time with junior Chris Relf, Russell tied a school record with four touchdown passes and finished 13-of-16 for 256 yards in the 49-7 win over Memphis.
“I wanted to prove something to myself after the spring game,” said Russell, a redshirt freshman. “I didn’t do as well as I wanted and worked really hard in the offseason. Having athletes like Chad (Bumphis), Brandon (Heavens) and Leon (Berry) around you just makes my job easier.
“You always wonder what that first college game is going to be like. But for me, it really didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would as far as nervousness. After I completed my first pass, I had my confidence going. It really felt good out there with those guys.”
As fate would have it, Newton and Russell spent some time together last year when Newton made his official visit to Mississippi State. Newton admits it was hard to tell Dan Mullen no. They hit it off when Mullen recruited him to Florida, and Mullen was also his position coach with the Gators.
“I had so much respect for coach Mullen and what he’s doing for Mississippi State,” Newton said. “I really wanted to be a part of that, but couldn’t turn down the opportunity at Auburn. This is where I needed to be.”
Mullen made a hard push to get Newton, but also made it clear to Russell that he was the Bulldogs’ quarterback of the future.
“Coach Mullen talked to me about it and said that it would be the best thing for me, that I could learn more from him since he’s been in the same system at Florida,” Russell said. “The competition was going to be great with me, Chris and Cameron. But he’s at Auburn now, and our defense is preparing for him and their defense is preparing for us.”
Mullen nearly played Russell as a true freshman for all the wrong reasons.
The Bulldogs were turning the ball over in droves against Houston in the sixth week last season, and Mullen turned to Russell and told him to get ready, that he was going in the next series.
Fortunately for Mullen, the Bulldogs’ defense forced a three-and-out, and an admittedly frustrated Mullen didn’t want to throw Russell out there without even warming up.
“He’s a guy that really needed (a redshirt year),” Mullen said. “All he’d gotten was a training camp going into the season. He didn’t have a spring ball. He didn’t have any of the other things, and he got all those things this year. He got to go through spring practice and go through his second training camp.
“His whole approach is different, and I think you see that in how he carries himself out there on the football field.”
Relf will again start the game against Auburn, but Mullen said Russell would play in the first half. From there, there won’t be any set rotation similar to the opener.
“We’ll get Tyler into the game and play it by ear a little bit,” Mullen said.
Russell had a seat on the sideline a year ago to see the Bulldogs come up short in all those nauseating close losses. He’s right in the middle of it now and said Thursday night’s national stage is just the opportunity to prove that it’s a new day in Starkville.
“Our mindset is that we have to go out there and show the world what Mississippi State football is about now, and I think we’re going to do that,” Russell said. “It’s going to be electrifying, and the crowd’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be on ESPN, primetime.
“I mean, we’re just ready.”