Relf looks to jump from good to great
About this time last season, the big question during Mississippi State's spring camp was if Chris Relf could handle the responsibility of being the Bulldogs' starting quarterback.
The answer has been a resounding yes.
As one of the surprising stars on a surprising team last fall, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior from Montgomery, Ala., put up big numbers with few mistakes. He threw for 1,789 yards, rushed for 719 yards, accounted for 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
MSU enjoyed its best season in more than a decade, with a 9-4 record and Gator Bowl win over Michigan.
So now the revised question heading into Saturday's spring game is can Relf become one of the elite quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference?
Relf is confident it can happen.
''There's no pressure on me,'' he said. ''I've been here five years. It's just time for me to step up. I know the offense real well and I'm ready to go out and win.''
Hearing those words from Relf would have been almost unthinkable early in his career. Though he always been the ideal size for a big-time quarterback and had the arm strength to match, his consistency and knowledge of the offense was slow to develop. He struggled so much during his first few years that it was hard to imagine him ever developing into a meaningful part of the offense.
Instead, he's silenced critics and blossomed into a highly effective quarterback.
But Relf says there's parts of his game that can improve. One of the primary problems early in his career was giving up on plays and scrambling, when a little patience could have provided a big play.
He's still occasionally erratic with his throws, too, and wants to improve on his 58.6 percent completion percentage from the fall. Footwork and throwing drills have been his focus.
Third-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he's fully confident Relf will improve physically. It's the leadership aspect that he sees room for growth. Relf is soft-spoken and well-liked by teammates, which is great when things are going well.
But Mullen would occasionally like to see a harder edge to Relf's presence.
''When adversity strikes - can he get everybody locked back in?'' Mullen said. ''That's the key and that's the hardest part as a leader. When things go bad, can you stop it and get things turned around?''
Some of Relf's improvement will hinge on things out of his control, like the development of the offensive line. The Bulldogs are trying to replace multiple contributors from last season - including All-SEC left tackle Derek Sherrod.
Mississippi State is rotating senior James Carmon, a converted defensive lineman, and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell. Both are improving, but there's been less time to throw. Mullen said it was obvious that the defense had won the majority of scrimmages during spring practice.
The Bulldogs are also trying to create some depth at receiver, which has been a sore spot the past few seasons.
Relf refuses to use those concerns as a crutch.
''My guys are going to give me time (in the pocket). It's a matter of me making plays,'' Relf said. ''I expect to throw a lot and I think the coaches believe in me.''
Senior offensive guard Quentin Saulsberry said Relf's confidence has risen dramatically over the past year, and his ability to lead grows each day.
''With the years come confidence,'' Saulsberry said. ''I think Chris has developed over the years and he's gained that confidence. Our coaches tell us you've got to look in the mirror. Look at yourself. Once you're comfortable with yourself, that's where leadership comes in - then you can try to help somebody else.''