STARKVILLE — Mississippi State’s Chris Relf is making a case to be the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback.
Relf, often forgotten in discussions about the team’s quarterback plans, is showing why coach Dan Mullen predicted Relf would play a big role in his spread offense.
The Montgomery, Ala., native is pushing Tyson Lee for the starting job and has people forgetting about Tyler Russell, the freshman thought to be the quarterback of the future.
“I think I should be included in the discussion,” Relf said.
Turns out Mullen and his new offensive coordinator, Les Koenning, agree.
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Relf just looks like a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
The redshirt sophomore has the kind of build that had fans questioning why he was on the sidelines last year. Even Mullen, the secretive former Florida offensive coordinator, was making predictions about him before preseason practice began.
“I think people will be shocked at the contribution Chris might make this year to the team,” Mullen told The Associated Press a few days before camp opened.
A week later, Mullen said Relf had pulled even with Lee, the senior incumbent, who had been penciled in as the starter with a very light hand.
Though no outsider’s actually allowed to watch practice these days, Mullen says the race to earn playing time is getting tight.
You need look no further than Tim Tebow’s rise to national prominence to see how important the position is in Mullen’s scheme. That adds an extra dimension to the competition at Mississippi State, where quarterback play has been disappointing for much of the decade.
“I think a big part of what’s happened is there’s always competition,” Koenning said. “If there’s not competition at a position, it’s probably not a very good deal.”
The position was there for the taking last year with Wes Carroll giving way to Lee early on and the offense struggling throughout. But Relf just wasn’t ready. He needed to work on his accuracy and fundamentals, and catch up with Lee in the playbook.
This year, though, he’s worked out with Lee and the other players step for step and it has been paying off. The extra work helped Relf eliminate one of his problems — accuracy. Reports are coming back that he’s on target more often. After all, there’s no point in having a strong arm if you can’t predict where the ball will land.
“I think I’m the most athletic quarterback we’ve got, but I think there are little things I need to work on such as footwork and snapping my hand out of the way when I throw and just following through,” Relf said.
Understanding how to fix the delivery problems he was having has allowed him to level the playing field with Lee.
Considered one of the smartest players on the team, Lee has quickly digested Mullen’s playbook. If anything, Mullen has said, he’s slowing Lee down so the entire offense can keep up.
Lee passed for 1,519 yards and seven touchdowns last season, starting eight games. He earned the respect of players and fans, but most continue to point out that he doesn’t have the physique of a major college quarterback.
At 5-foot-11, he struggles at times to see over the offensive line and find receivers downfield. And at 201 pounds — up 17 from last season — coaches worry if he can take the punishment he’ll likely get running the spread offense.
His innate leadership abilities and true love for the school — he grew up a half hour away in Columbus, attended games as a child and came to Mississippi State as a walk-on — have earned him a lot of fans among his teammates.
He spent the summer trying to get Russell up to speed and even now, as he battles for the starting job, he’s still helping out the competition.
“He’s a nice guy,” Relf said. “He’ll motivate you, help you out if you need help. A great guy.”
Which means teammates are quick to defend him when the discussion turns to liabilities.
“There’s a lot of short quarterbacks,” wide receiver Brandon McRae said. “Chris Leak, you got Doug Flutie, Drew Brees is only like 6-foot. As long as the ball gets there he’s cool with me.”
Leak, in particular, comes to mind when folks talk about Lee. Also vertically challenged, Leak teamed with Tebow in his final season to lead the Gators to a national championship. Tebow took about 15 percent of the snaps, concentrating on short yardage and goal-line situations.
Many see Lee earning the starter’s role when the season begins, but giving way in key situations to Relf, who can then use his athleticism to ratchet up the pressure on the defense.
“You know, Tyson, he’s a senior, so I think that is my role for right now,” said Relf, who was 2 of 9 in very limited action last season. “(Mullen) hasn’t decided on who the starting quarterback is yet, so I really don’t know, but I think I see myself in the Tebow role when we need a change, coming in and running the ball and passing a little bit.”
Of course, he wouldn’t mind winning the job outright. Nothing personal. But like many players on the team, he really doesn’t care who plays where as long as the Bulldogs win — a rare occurrence since 2000.
“I just want to win this season, that’s all,” Relf said. “We’ve been down for the past few years and I just want to come out and win.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press