Last summer the question on every Mississippi State fans mind was can Chris Relf handle the starting job at quarterback?
Following a breakout performance in the 2009 Egg Bowl, Relf took over the reins of the offense and guided the Bulldogs to a 9-4 and was the Most Valuable Player a Gator Bowl victory. Now the fifth year senior returns as the most seasoned signal caller in the Southeastern Conference.
"There is no pressure on me," Relf said. "I've been here five years and I think it's time for me to step up. I think I know the offense real well and I'm ready to go out there and win this year."
Relf started every game under center for MSU last season accounting for 2,502 yards of offense and 18 touchdowns. He completed 58.6-percent of his passes for 1,789 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions and picked up 713 yards and five scores on the ground.
Dan Mullen knows a thing or two about coaching top quarterbacks. After all the third-year Bulldog head coach has tutored two Heisman Trophy winners and two No. 1 overall NFL draft picks. Mullen believes Relf has what it takes to headline the SEC's quarterback class this fall.
"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."
But things have not always been this way for Relf. The former two-star recruit from Montgomery, Ala., had no other SEC offers and had to basically learn how to play quarterback after he arrived in Starkville following a high school career in a run oriented offense.
Relf appered in only 12 games during his first three years on campus and had only 296 career passing yards. He was used primarily as a runner during those seasons which was something that just came naturally.
"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 spent his first two years at State working in Sylvester Croom's west coast offense and the move to Mullen's spread delayed his progress even more early on.
"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."
Physically Relf had all the tools but even Mullen questioned his confidence and leadership qualities early on.
"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."
Relf exited the spring as he started it atop the depth chart ahead of former Parade All-Americans Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre. Now Relf has his sights set on leading the Bulldogs back to the postseason and another Top 25 ranking.
"I think I've progressed a lot," Relf said. "I think I've came a long ways. I've been here five years. 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."