"Alabama recruited me," Relf said. "As a wide receiver when Mike Shula was there, coming out of high school. I just wanted to come to Mississippi State and play quarterback." Because, the Bulldog program was willing to gamble on Relf's potential to become a capable college quarterback. It has taken time but as a fourth-fall junior Relf is rewarding that investment.
He has thrown for 926 yards as the full-season starter, with seven touchdowns and—of maybe more meaning to his coaches—just three interceptions. In fact Relf has not been picked off since a tough night at LSU, six games ago. By no coincidence, the Bulldogs won each of those six games as Relf has cut down the turnovers completely.
"It's just getting more comfortable," Coach Dan Mullen said. "That comes with experience and playing time. A lot of times young guys think ‘I need to make a play'. There's nothing wrong with 2nd-and-10, wait for another point when you have your opportunity."
"I think I've been doing pretty good," said Relf. "But it's just something I have to work on each and every day."
That's not cliché, either. Because while Relf has not thrown the ball to opponents, he has also been missing teammates too often lately. In the last three games he is only19-of-45 passing, and his season completions rate is down to 53%. So there really is a lot of work to do, especially in the short throwing game. Mullen has caught some mechanical issues in reviewing recent games.
"It's just setting his feet on some of those short throws. He made some great throws down the field, (then) spiked the bubble screen into he ground! He didn't set his feet on it."
Relf has seen the same situations and agrees with the coach.
"I think sometimes I get too excited. I see them wide-open and don't get my feet set and end up making a bad throw. It's something I have to work on." Relf has had time to do so, too, thanks to that open date that was devoted much more to cleaning up his and many other MSU fundamental flaws than as a head-start on the Alabama preparations.
Speaking of the opponent, yes, Relf agrees: "I think in order for us to win the game this week I'm going to have to pass more, and complete more passes." Because he has seen yet another Tide defense that thrives on stuffing the sort of ground game which has been Mississippi State's strongest point in the winning streak. Relf, by the way, is still the team's second-leading rusher with 507 yards and a 6.7 average gain.
The difference between he and tailback Vick Ballard (619 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns) is that Relf has toted the ball 123 times, including sacks, to the tailback's 92 attempts. Yes, State rotates the tailbacks with LaDarius Perkins and Robert Elliott sharing that load. Still Relf ends up tucking and toting more often than most, and that takes an obvious physical toll. Particularly on passing.
Not that Relf admits being beat up after nine games. "I'm feeling good, real good. I've been very healthy the last few weeks! I'm getting used to getting hit."
Maybe so, but Relf realizes avoiding too many hits—or at least, until after he's gained a good bit of ground—is preferable. And, that as proud as he is of State's ground game he needs to provide a complete quarterback performance this week. He says the Tide secondary has different faces than a year ago but the talent is the same, and up front it is the usual, physical, aggressive approach he's seen before.
"Alabama's defense is great," he shrugs, as in ‘what else is new'. By the same token the Bulldogs are on their own roll, rested by a free week, and ready to hit the November home stretch with so much left to be won.
"I think we've gotten a lot better. We expect to win, we've worked hard in practice all week and we're just want to go out there and win. We just have to go out and execute every play; offense, defense and special teams."