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April 11, 2011Four years ago, Chris Relf was a freshman being yelled at by Sylvester Croom while he tried to figure out how to become a quarterback.
Three months ago, he passed for 281 yards and accounted for four touchdowns on New Year's Day, winning the Gator Bowl MVP for Dan Mullen.
Now, he's exiting his final spring practice at Mississippi State as the unquestioned starter and senior leader of his team.
"I think I've progressed a lot," Relf said. "I think I've came a long ways. I've been here five years and it's my last spring practice in full pads. Mainly, I've just tried to work on my footwork, staying in the pocket and delivering the ball this spring, and I think I've done that. I got a lot done and I've got to keep working in May, June and July until the season comes."
Mullen has noticed Relf's improvement, as well, and he expressed surprise that the shy quarterback he met when he first arrived in Starkville is now the reigning Gator Bowl MVP and one of the biggest names returning in the SEC West in 2011.
"Yeah, he didn't say anything. When I first got the job, I met one-on-one with every player on the team. He was a nice kid, talking to him," Mullen said. "Did I think he could get here? Boy, I don't know, probably not."
When he started his career as the coach of the Bulldogs in 2009, Mullen was known for his offensive prowess and his ability to develop quarterbacks. While the cupboard was not bare, Relf was part of a relatively unproven threesome at quarterback for the first-year head coach.
Relf had appeared only briefly in two games during his redshirt freshman season in 2008. Tyler Russell was expected to be the next great quarterback at MSU, but when Mullen started his first spring practice, Russell was still getting ready for prom. Senior and returning starter Tyson Lee was the only one with experience, but he was the starter in a season that ended in a coaching change.
Lee ultimately won the job, and he led the oft-under matched Bulldogs to a 5-7 season. However, after the season was over, and just days after Mullen declared, "There's one school in this state that's on the rise," Relf was the only quarterback anyone talked about. In the 2009 Egg Bowl Relf rushed for 131 yards and passed for a pair of touchdowns, and Mullen said that game is when Relf finally "got it."
"The issue with Chris, and just my first early dealings with him, it took him to, really, the School Up North game my first year here, is when he, to me, started to grasp what it even is to be a quarterback," Mullen said. "That is the key with Chris. I don't really even think he grasped - really, that game he kind of turned a corner. Going before last season, he was a different guy. I think he understood the approach he had to take as a quarterback, the preparation it takes to be a quarterback, and he really started focusing on that. Now, I think he understands the offense. He understands what it means to be the quarterback."
Relf, too, said the difference for him between even last spring and this spring is, "night and day."
He admits, of course, that it took tremendous amounts of hard work to make those improvements, and he said, as Mullen did, that it took him time to grasp being a quarterback.
"Things were just so fast when I first got here," Relf said. "I just had to adjust to everything. It's been a lot of hard work. I remember when I first started off playing football I was clumsy and it was just something I had to work at. My dad used to have me out there throwing to trash cans and hanging on monkey bars to keep my hands strong. There was a lot of stuff that I did just to get to this point where I am right now."
Relf said he remembers coming in as a freshman just trying to figure out what was going on. He said would often go to the older quarterbacks, such as Michael Henig, Wesley Carroll and Tyson Lee, looking for help and advice.
Now, just a few years later, he is the one giving advice to the young guns.
Freshman quarterback Dylan Favre said he thinks Relf may have even grown weary of constant pleas for help from a kid trying to take his job.
"Chris helped me out a lot, and him being here longer than Tyler, kind of getting more comfortable with the offense," Favre said. "During the summer, I probably got on his nerves, because I was constantly asking him questions, like, 'Hey, can we do this after workouts.' But he definitely helped me out a lot."
The leadership role is certainly a new one for Relf, who said Mullen and strength coach Matt Balis have both been on him about being a more active leader. When interviewed by reporters, Relf is typically shy and never long-winded in his answers to inquiries. In the past, his demeanor on the field has been the same.
Now, however, he said his way of displaying the leadership his coaches are looking for is by being more vocal with his teammates.
Senior center Quentin Saulsberry said he is proud of the progress Relf has made, and he believes the vocal leadership comes with maturity.
"It's aging. It's aging up and growing. He's always talking about things back at home, and how you gotta step up. I think he takes everything in his personal life and puts it into football," Saulsberry said. "Me and Chris came in at the same time. I know Chris on a personal level, and he's been through a lot of things during the course of his whole career. Now we're older guys, and we know we gotta set the standard."
Mullen said that change is simply the next step of the progression in Relf's development as a quarterback now that he grasps the Xs and Os of football.
"He understands the demeanor he has to have, but because he's relaxed and understands it all, he's able to be that leader. He's able to be more vocal. He's much more relaxed on the field. That's the development you want players to go through," Mullen said. "You always want him to be a leader, but I think he's done it more on his own, because now he's confident in what he's doing. When he's confident in what he's doing, he can go out and show those leadership qualities."
Russell said he has noticed a significant change in Relf over the last two years.
"Chris has stepped up a lot," Russell said. "He's matured a lot since the time I've been here. You know, he has to take over; he's a senior now. Just summer workouts, offseason workouts, you can tell he's turning into a big-time leader."
If he truly is a big-time leader, the next step for Relf is to truly become a big-time quarterback, particularly if he wants to achieve his goal of playing in the NFL. He will need to see the same amount of improvement from 2010 to 2011 as he did from 2009 to 2010 if he wants to become a premier quarterback.
With his size, strength and running ability, Relf has been called a poor man's Cameron Newton. Mullen, on the other hand, said he actually sees a lot of similarities between Relf and LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Fitting, as the two are the only returning starters at the position in the SEC West, and Jefferson may lose his job, making Relf the only returning starter out of the toughest division college football may have ever seen.
Mullen is not ready to say for sure Relf will be one of the next great SEC quarterbacks, but he believes the now-confident senior may just have a chance.
"He has the opportunity," Mullen said. "He has a long way to go. He's still developing that way. But I think when he plays with some of the confidence he has now, he has the opportunity to be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference next year."
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