"If they dropped a ball, I'd make them do ten push-ups," Relf explained, asked about why in the first four days of official drills the football was hitting turf relatively rarely. "It's me making them do it out here!"
Should this seem presumptious on the part of a player, well, it's also worth remembering that last fall Relf showed he was not the typical player. Or play-maker either. In his fourth season and first as the starter, Relf muscled the Mississippi State offense into a new degree of impact. Obviously he was working with some heavy hitters as well, playing off big-scorer Vick Ballard and big-threat LaDarius Perkins. And his near-59% passing efficiency clearly benefited from the feats of Chad Bumphis and Company getting open downfield. Then of course there was that brutal blocking bunch in front making it all possible in the first place.
Yet all agree that Relf was the unifying factor. So when the senior speaks, whether to tell teammates to tighten up this spring or informing fans of fall potential, it's well-worth listening. And what exactly does Relf think of the state of State in 2011?
"Oh, I'm very excited about coming back for spring football. I've been waiting to come back out here, there's a lot of hard work and it's a grind like every day. I'm just ready to get back in the fall so we can play!"
But then since fall is fairly far away Relf remains focused on this semester's schedule. And cracking the proverbial—and verbal—whip on everyone to raise their own games. Thus that taking charge when no staff member is around.
"It's just working every day," Relf said. "And they know Coach (Dan) Mullen is going to work them, so I had to work them just like Coach Mullen was going to work them!"
Again, no one should mistake this as taking on senior-airs. Relf has been through a literal grind over his career and few have a more personal appreciation of just how greatly Mississippi State football has progressed in general. And on offense specifically. So if the quarterback believes the Bulldogs are capable of even better production this third time around under Mullen's management, fans and foes alike ought to pay attention.
Even better news is that Relf reports the full spring roster has bought into this attitude, as they proved in January and February workouts before ever suiting up for practices.
"I feel like we can take it to the next level, if we work hard. Like I said, in the off-season we came together as a team and everybody is picking each other up. We're just going to try to keep working hard and coming out here and doing what we do best."
What the Bulldog offense did best in 2010 was pound the ground. Ballard piled up 968 rushing yards and 19 of the team's 28 running touchdowns. Perkins, 566 more with three scores. Rob Elliott took his rotation turns for 221 yards. Then there was Relf with 713 net yards and five TDs. So despite losing record-setting runner Anthony Dixon to the NFL, State's ground game actually improved in both average gains and total touchdowns. Much more of the same is forecast for '11 with the addition of very impressive redshirt runner Nick Griffin, too.
All great stuff…but what of the air attack? Running has never been an issue with Relf. And while he did make serious strides as a passer once handed the starting assignment—likely exceeding expectations of anyone who saw him as a really raw 2007 rookie—he's still not a finished product. He knows it as well as anyone.
Thus when Relf was out there throwing the ball around in pre-spring he was working as much on his own technique as any target. "Mainly just throwing to the wide receivers and working on my feet-work. I'm just coming out here and work on my feet, getting out of the pocket and trying to make plays." He'll never be a pure pocket passer but then nobody wants to turn this rugged runner into a backfield statue. Not when his forward feet-work keep defenders on their own heels.
The fun part of real spring practicing has been getting to see how his receivers operate around a defense. Whether in 7-on-7 or -8 situations, or full-team scrimmaging, Relf has been able to locate an open option more often than not…and certainly more often than in previous springs. And as noted, they're getting hands on the ball better this time around.
Interestingly, though, Relf reports no radical additions to the spring playbook. "Really we're just doing what we were doing. We've been changing the formations a little bit but really nothing real hard, you know." What is new, now, are several young wide—in a couple of cases tight—targets to toss to who should expand the '11 repertoire. New Bulldog blood like Jameon Lewis, Malcolm and Robert Johnson, Brandon Hill, to be mixed into rotations with all the returnees. And as any good fan knows, State is returning all but one wideout who caught a ball in '10.
"We're got a lot of receivers, a lot of guys that redshirted last year and I think they're gong to be pretty good. They've been working hard in the off-season and things looked pretty good today."
The ‘today' Relf referred to was last Thursday, the fourth practice of spring camp and last before the Bulldogs left on this week's spring break. It was the first day for full-contact tackling and Mullen took advantage to have a strictly-structured scrimmage, with points awarded either offense or defense depending on whether the ball moved forward, backward, or not at all. When strength coach Matt Balis reported the final tally, Mullen expressed open surprise that the offense had won 97 to 95.
Relf responded like a demanding Dog should, almost insulted his head coach had been surprised. "Yeah, he should have expected us to win!"
That is exactly what Mullen would have expected to hear from his quarterback, of course. Relf will never be the most voluble Bulldog with the press, but within the huddle or locker room there is now no doubting who must be listened to. Time, tenure, and most of all success last season have earned Relf both the right and the responsibility of taking charge.
Thus, the respect being shown him this spring. Relf is not taking it for granted, though.
"It's mainly coming from me just being a leader. I've been here five years now so I just try to come out and be hyped-up every day. And if my teammates see me like that I know they're going to be hyped-up and try to come out here making plays," Relf said.
Such talk can only hype up everyone who cares about Bulldog football, right? Well, Relf has even more, and bolder, things to say about 2011. Especially about his own personal ambitions for this senior season.
"I want to win the national championship. That's what I want to do. I want to put Mississippi State on the map now. I know with Coach Mullen and Coach (Les) Koenning helping me, I think we can do that. I think we'll be pretty good."
And anyone who thinks differently right now…well, they can just drop to the floor and give ten, too.