By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There’s something about the end of a season that makes it all click for Chris Relf.
In 2009, when he was just a platoon quarterback for Mississippi State, Relf ran roughshod over Ole Miss in the season finale, a performance that vaulted him into an offseason of great growth and ultimately into a full-time starter’s role in 2010.
This season, his progress has been very evident, but the final two regular-season games for Relf indicate that he’s reached another level still.
In a double-overtime loss to Arkansas and then a win over Ole Miss, Relf completed a combined 33 of 50 passes for 512 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Those teams’ pass defenses aren’t exactly world beaters, but Relf exploited them about as well as any quarterback could hope to.
It capped a regular season in which Relf has completed 56.3 percent of his throws for 1,508 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“He’s been a totally different person this year,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “And he’s done a great job of leading and managing games, putting us in situations to win and doing what he needs to do to be the leader of the offense.”
But what’s the reason for the difference?
Well, one factor was Relf’s offseason work, when he said he threw 1,000 passes a week. That 2009 Egg Bowl performance also gave the fourth-year junior a level of confidence that hasn’t abated.
“You gain confidence by actually doing it in a game,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “It’s one thing to come out and practice and get a lot of reps at it. But when you have a chance to do it in a game, it’s really, truly good.”
A new level of maturity can be seen in Relf’s decision-making. The five interceptions (in 197 attempts) are tied for fewest in the SEC.
“He’s done a nice job of throwing the ball away when he needs to, of taking chances one-on-one, taking some shots down the field when he needs to,” Mullen said. “He’s done a better job developing as a passer, setting his feet and making throws.”
Tough to tackle
While Relf has improved as a passer, he poses the biggest threat to Michigan in Saturday’s Gator Bowl as a runner.
He’s second on the team with 683 rushing yards, and at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds is a load to stop.
“He can run between the tackles; he can also run outside,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He runs over some people, and you’re going to really have to tackle him. He’s not going to go down by just reaching an arm around him, so we’ve got to get multiple guys to the ball carrier, whether it’s Chris or one of those tailbacks.”
Rodriguez said he’s used several players in the role of Relf on the scout team, but freshman Devin Gardner (6-4, 210) is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a Relf doppelgänger.
“Not quite as thick as Relf is, but he’s been probably the guy that’s shown the most as far as the best look toward him,” said Rodriguez.
If the trend holds, Michigan will have a tough time with Relf. He ran for 103 yards versus Arkansas while passing for what was then a career-high 224 yards.
Then against Ole Miss, he topped that passing number with a 288-yard day.
It’s all coming together for Relf, again.
“At some point in your career,” said Mullen, “the light kind of flashes where it comes on, and everything you’ve been hearing over and over and people yelling and screaming at you, all of a sudden a light comes on, and it makes sense.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.