Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Mississippi State senior Chris Relf.
• Typecasting. In 2009, I took in Relf's breakout performance against Ole Miss in person, and came away doubly mystified that a) A quarterback with his obvious size and athleticism went essentially unrecruited by any other SEC school out of Montgomery, Ala., in 2007, and b) It took him almost two entire seasons to finally relegate regular starter Tyson Lee — a 5-foot-10 placeholder who finished his senior season with 14 interceptions to just four touchdowns, the worst ratio in the country — to the bench.
The mystery only deepened last year, when Relf accounted for almost 2,500 total yards and 17 touchdowns as the trigger man for the Bulldogs' best offensive season in well over a decade, even while splitting time for most of the first half of the season. With his raw ability and Tim Tebow-esque size (both are 6-3, 240 pounds), Relf always looked like a natural fit for the "option" portions of coach Dan Mullen's spread option scheme, the same scheme that propelled Tebow to a Heisman Trophy in 2007 and Florida to a BCS championship in 2008 with Mullen as offensive coordinator. It was only with his vast improvement last year as a passer, though, that Relf suddenly looked like a legitimate, every-down SEC starter.
• At his best... Not that anyone is ever going to mistake Relf's arm for the Tebow Child's, including the skeptics who didn't think the latter had much of an arm to speak of. If Relf has advanced from "Wildcat QB" to "dual threat," the running threat still comes first: He logged 15 carries per game in 2010 for 880 yards before sacks, including 21 in the win over Georgia, 22 in he upset win at Florida and 31 in the double overtime heartbreaker against Arkansas, for 103 yards. Clearly, at 240, he's a workhorse, not a blazer, but he has a gear to hit the open field, too (though as the second clip demonstrates, it helps if the safeties immediately run themselves out of the play):
The attention defenses are forced to pay to Relf as a runner opens up the rest of the ground game — running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins combined for 1,547 yards and 23 touchdowns on 5.4 per carry — and routinely leaves single coverage in the secondary on the relatively rare occasion Mullen allows him to throw:
• At his worst... The obvious explanation for Relf's failure to win the job outright in 2009 is that coaches were terrified to let him put the ball in the air, a fear he reinforced by serving up two interceptions in 11 attempts (one of them returned for a touchdown) in an early loss at Auburn. It was well into October last year before coaches put an end to the platoon system with the resident dropback passer, Tyler Russell, and well into November before they seemed to stop breathing into paper bags every time the ball left his hands.
Even then, Relf's late success — 569 yards, six touchdowns in wins over Ole Miss and Michigan to close the season — came against two of the most hopeless secondaries in America, as did his earlier, stat-padding efforts against Memphis and Alcorn State. Against respectable defenses, he continued to struggle dramatically, turning in sub-100 efficiency ratings against Auburn, LSU, Florida and Alabama and failing to throw a touchdown pass in any of the Bulldogs' four losses. He wasn't interception-prone (only six picks in 217 attempts, and none at all over the course of a six-game winning streak at midseason), but defenses that manage to keep the running game in check don't have much to worry about on passing downs.
• FunSobering/Heartwarming Fact. Relf was the last of several players to honor late teammate Nick Bell last season by donning Bell's No. 36 jersey for the Gator Bowl rout over Michigan, apparently at the fans' request: "I got a lot of e-mails from people saying it'd be cool if Chris wore the jersey," Mullen said. "I showed them to him and he said 'I think it'd be great.'"
Relf's third touchdown pass of the afternoon pushed the final score to 52-14, easily smashing the Gator Bowl record for points in a game and the first time Mississippi State topped 50 points in a game since dropping 51 on Jackson State in 2002. His postgame quote: "With Michigan, it was great defense."
• What to expect in the fall. The Bulldogs are probably bound for a rare top 25 nod in the preseason polls, and the AP headline that went out all over America after last weekend's spring game was about Relf's "jump from good to great." That's ambitious in a division that features at least three and possibly four other teams bound for the top 25 themselves, but not so farfetched when you consider that Relf — along with Georgia's Aaron Murray — is arguably the best returning starter in the SEC. (At least among those who are actually likely to make it to the season.) With inherent low expectations and Mullen calling the shots, Mississippi State fans are certainly happier with him than any other starter in the league.
Whether that actually leads back to the even rarer New Year's Day Bowl will depend very largely on how far Relf is able to progress on the learning curve against competent defenses that will force him to throw to win. MSU was 8-1 last year when it topped 200 yards rushing, the one loss coming in a double-overtime shootout against a top-10 offense with a first-round draft pick under center; it was 0-3 when it was held below 175 yards. Those three games were also three of Relf's worst as a passer, and if he's going to turn any of them in 2011, it will be by virtue of a few big plays from his arm.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.