Chris Relf is the consummate teammate, but his benching obviously stung him. You could say it put a dent in his confidence, but perhaps that's not entirely accurate.
The confidence in himself seems to still be there. What Relf seems to be having issue with is the coaching staff's confidence in him, as evidenced by his comments following MSU's 21-3 win over UAB. The game story is mostly an examination of the dynamic that's been created by the play of Tyler Russell in the second half, when he entered and threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
Relf talked a lot about the downfield passing game, which has been a trouble spot for MSU's offense all season. Russell made plenty of downfield throws, averaging 15.1 yards per completion and tossing TD passes of 18, 57 and 20 yards.
Asked about the offense's inability to move the ball much in the first half, Relf said, "I just think we've got to throw the ball down the field. I didn't have that chance, and Tyler had that chance to throw the ball down the field in the second half. He made the big plays, and I'm just happy with the win."
He later said, "I just feel like I need to throw the ball more down field. I feel like the coaches need to trust me more to throw the ball down the field."
I'll be interested to hear what Mullen has to say about that. He said in the postgame that the play calling didn't really change once Russell entered.
"We didn't change a lot of what we were calling. I think we just got the spark and we executed much cleaner in the second half. Tyler knows that when he goes in the game, we're going to run our offense. And he ran it."
UAB cornerback Cornelius Richards had a different assessment: "It seemed like they opened up their playbook a little bit more when they put (Russell) in to play." I've not had a chance to rewatch the game (and probably won't), but perhaps it's notable that Chad Bumphis said the play they ran on his 57-yard TD catch had been run a "couple of times" in the first half, just unsuccessfully.
It's also notable that UAB's pass defense is one of the nation's worst. But Relf had little success against it.
When Relf said he didn't have a chance to throw downfield, was he talking about play calling or just the fact that the offensive line wasn't always giving him time? When asked about his desire to throw it deep, Relf said, "Whatever play works, I've got to execute. It's just a matter of the coaches believing in me to throw the ball, that's all."
His postgame comments aside, Relf – by all accounts – handled his benching gracefully in front of the team. Mullen announced the change during halftime, and here's the coach's account of what happened next: "And in front of the team before we take the field, Chris Relf was leading the team, in front of the team, cheering, getting them excited, getting them ready for the second half. I don't see a lot of issues with us at that position."
Bumphis saw nothing but a team-first attitude from Relf, who had a breakout 2010 season and was named Gator Bowl MVP. This was supposed to be his year to do great things, but he seemed happy for Russell.
"That's Chris, though. He's not going to be down," Bumphis said. "He's Chris Relf, he's going to want whoever's in to do well. There was no negative feedback from him at all."
Relf had plenty of praise for Russell, so there doesn't appear to be any tension in that relationship, not publicly. If there is an issue, it might lie with Relf's desire to be given more freedom to throw the ball. It's no secret that it took Mullen a while to trust Relf as a passer, and he had good reason for caution. Relf has grown quite confident in his passing abilities, however, and wants to prove his value in that department.
For what it's worth, Russell didn't take credit for saving the day or anything like that.
"I really do believe (Mullen) could've put anybody in that situation, and they would've did the same thing," he said. "We all practice hard. Dylan (Favre) could've went in and did the same thing. I think Chris would've went back in there after halftime and picked it back up."
It's encouraging to see the quarterbacks back each other up like Relf and Russell are doing, but despite that, and despite Mullen's efforts to quell the QB chatter this week – he said he'll be prohibiting Relf and Russell from talking to media – the questions will not abate. They'll just pile up by the day, and perhaps to a greater degree than if Mullen were to let his QBs speak.
This issue will be dissected daily, all over the place. We still don't know exactly what Relf's benching means for him, for Russell or for the offense. Relf said Mullen assured him he's still the starter, but few will be so easily convinced.