March 24, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Mississippi State junior Chris Relf.
• Typecasting. I watched breakout performance against Ole Miss in person, and came away doubly shocked that a) A quarterback with his obvious size and athleticism went essentially unrecruited by any other SEC school out of Montgomery, Ala., three years ago, and b) It took him almost two entire seasons to finally relegate regular starter Tyson Lee -- a 5'10" placeholder who finished his senior season with 14 interceptions to just four touchdowns, the worst ratio in the country -- to the bench.
Those two facts alone suggest Relf has obviously struggled to pick up the offense, and frankly to hit the broadside of a barn with his enviable arm. But his raw ability forced new coach Dan Mullen to deploy Relf as the change-of-pace/Wildcat option last year, much as he alternated Tim Tebow into the lineup as a true freshman as offensive coordinator at Florida, and Relf's Tebow-esque size (both are listed at 6'3", 235) and running ability makes him an obvious asset to those aspects of Mullen's spread option scheme. Whether he fends off redshirt freshman Tyler Russell for the full-time job, though, depends solely on Relf's development as a passer.
• At his best ... Relf was consistently dangerous when given the chance as a runner, averaging 6.6 yards on 76 carries with five runs of at least 20 yards, including a 24-yard gallop against Florida and a 53-yarder at Kentucky a week later. He also showed off his arm with three touchdown passes against Jackson State in the opener and big strikes for 32 yards and 46 yards, respectively, against Auburn and LSU before September was out, both on .
But it was his effort against Ole Miss in the finale that sparked probably the best overall game the Bulldogs have played in the last decade, and Relf's case as a full-time starter this fall: Still alternating with Lee, Relf set up the Bulldogs' only touchdown of the first half on a 22-yard run inside the Ole Miss five, and proceeded to lead MSU on three sustained touchdown drives as the full-time quarterback in the second half, including two touchdown passes on four attempts -- one of them on an off-balance, 4th-and-10 heave into traffic that broke the game open -- that proved he can be at least a threat to throw. His 131 yards on the ground against the Rebels helped State to its third 300-yard rushing effort in the last four games, and the 34 points by the offense was the most the Bulldogs had scored against an SEC defense since 2005. In short, it was exactly what MSU fans expected when it hired Mullen to spice up the perpetually moribund offense, and Relf looked like the quintessential man for the job.
• At his worst ... Even on his best afternoon, it was obvious coaches were afraid to let Relf let go of the ball; his second touchdown pass, the off-balance 4th-and-10 heave into traffic, might have just as easily been intercepted, which would have been in line with his rare forays into the passing game to that point -- Relf had two of 11 passes intercepted against Auburn, one of them returned for a touchdown, definitively ending his adventures as a passer until the mid-November loss to Alabama, when he was 0-for-3 with another pick. Succinctly, Relf has not shown any consistency as a passer, and coaches haven't shown they trust him to demonstrate any.
• (Not So) Fun Fact. The other black mark that kept Relf off the field for part of the year was a two-game suspension for violating team rules at midseason, part of the month-and-a-half window in which he didn't attempt a pass in a game. That made his redemption at season's end particularly sweet, as you can see in this clip following the triumph against Ole Miss:
"I think I got a great future, too." We'll see.
• What to Expect in '10. As the "incumbent," so to speak, Relf opened the spring listed No. 1 on the depth chart, but insiders seem to have handicapped Tyler Russell as a slight favorite -- he's the local kid, after all, the high school star who snapped Mississippi prep power South Panola's 89-game winning streak in the 2008 state championship game and arrived in Starkville last year as the unquestioned heir apparent. It was hard not to classify Relf in the same role after the Egg Bowl, though, and he'll still be impossible to keep off the field in a Wildcat capacity; he should easily average 8-10 carries per game from the shotgun, even if he's splitting time.
Still, the odds that Relf has vanquished whatever mental and accuracy issues that made Mullen too squeamish to pull an obviously overwhelmed fifth-year senior in his favor last year are very, very long. Even if Relf starts and acquits himself well in the opener against Memphis, Russell is certain to get his chance there, and the catcalls for the up-and-comer if Relf starts clanging passes or overthrowing open receivers against the murderer's row of Auburn, LSU and Georgia to close out September will be too loud to ignore. Russell will likely struggle in his first action, too, but there will be more patience with the younger passer; if Relf doesn't show a consistent ability to keep defenses honest with his arm, he'll be splitting time 50:50 at best, and more likely finding himself hoping again for whatever "Wildcat" scraps are left over.