This time last spring, Mississippi State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks' coach Les Koenning didn't exactly know what to expect from the Bulldog signal callers. But that all changed in a good way this spring. MSU returned experience and talent under center and that position improvement was led by returning starter Chris Relf.
"I thought it went real well," said Koenning. "Chris Relf really improved his confidence in what he was doing. He didn't start the spring off very well and he will tell you the same thing. But he really finished strong and did some good things in the spring game. He got the tar knocked out of him a couple of times but he stayed in there and took it. But after the second time he got hit pretty good, I told him he was through for the day and we already know what he can do in a game."
And like the spring, Relf finished off his redshirt junior campaign on the upswing, particularly in the last three games against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan. On the year, Relf completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,789 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Always a threat on the ground, Relf ranked second on the team with 713 rushing yards and five more scores.
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"His confidence has really boosted a lot and that has been very helpful to him," said Koenning. "When he first came in he wasn't loaded with a lot of confidence. That is not saying anything bad against the other staff here. It was just that Relf was a young kid that has matured now. We've taylored some things for him in the offense and it's been a good marriage.
"The other part with Relf was just playing well in games and the teams he beat gave him a lot of confidence. And he likes that role of being a leader. Since we are usually a no-huddle team, his vocal leadership is not that big of a deal but he did improve in that area. He is still a quiet leader that leads by example and he does that in our offseason program, too, and it shows out on the field."
In 2010, redshirt sophomore Tyler Russell also got numerous reps behind Relf and was again Relf's backup this spring. In his first collegiate campaign to see the field, Russell completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns with six interceptions and 62 rushing yards.
Like Relf, Koenning also witnessed Russell take strides this spring.
"We saw a lot of maturity in Tyler," said Koenning. "When he first came in here, we would ask him if he understood something and he would say 'yes'. But then he would go out and try to execute it and it was obvious he didn't understand. So he started off this spring with something to prove and he did that really. In the end he didn't finish as well and he knew that. He said he tried to get too fancy and we told him to just stay in the system and make the throws."
What also aided Russell this spring, said Koenning, was the team's improvement at the receiver position.
"What really helped Tyler is we now have good threats at wide receiver and plus the running back position is stabilized," said Koenning. "We now have some decent numbers in at receiver and that is saying a lot from last year. In our bowl game, if we had lost a Brandon Heavens then he would have been replaced by a tight end.
"Tyler throws the ball well and having guys that can consistently catch it really improves his game. Tyler has done a nice job of developing into a good quarterback and he is an extremely good thrower. His limitations are just making sure that as he gets older in the system, he has to understand more and learn to use the system to his advantage. He has to stay with his basic progressions and reads and he will then be in good shape."
While Relf and Russell have experienced spring football before, the same could not be said for a pair of other MSU quarterbacks - redshirt freshman Dylan Favre and true freshman Dak Prescott.
Favre displayed his play-making ability early and often this spring and ended the spring with a solid performance in the Maroon and White game.
"Dylan finished the spring very strong," said Koenning. "The only upsetting thing and I've said this a lot and that is he could lead the SEC in all categories - passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions. He just has to understand that is not the way to win football games and we win games by taking care of the football. The other two guys take care of the ball well.
"But we harped on that and Dylan got better. When we tallied up all the turnovers in scrimmage settings, though, he still had more turnovers in his column."
Naturally, Koenning said that area of concern will improve with more experience. And Koenning said Favre already has several positives in his corner despite his age.
"He has great leadership and people follow him," said Koenning. "He can make things happen with his arm and make them happen quickly.
"It is really a unique situation we have now, too, where I feel comfortable with all three of them and we expect Dylan to cut down his turnovers. We look forward to see how it progresses. Relf is the starter but he sees those two guys behind him and he knows that they can run the football team, too. We feel much better than when we walked in here two years ago. We just didn't have the numbers we have now and it is a blessing."
Prescott sacrificed half of his senior year at Haughton (La.) High School to enroll at MSU early and to go through spring drills. Obviously, Prescott was just trying to catch his breathe this spring.
"It was a great learning experience for Dak to have the opportunity to go through all that stuff," said Koenning. "He kinda reminds me what Tyler went through last year. Dak would say he understood something but then would not know what he was looking at.
"His progressions and reads are not there yet and he would just throw to the open man. But he did show athletic abilitiy and I liked what I saw in his passing. His great opportunity is he doesn't have to play right now and I would feel real nervous if he had to play this year. So we really have to slow it down for him."