Mullen Raising Goals For Bulldog Quarterbacks

A year-three should see all sorts of progress in any program. One of the most encouraging 2011 facts is that Dan Mullen finally begins a season with 1) a veteran starting quarterback who has both played within his system and 2) won playing that way. The value of Chris Relf can't be overstated to greater Bulldog goals in this third year together.

And the goals are indeed greater. "Hopefully Chris will pick up where he left off, at a higher level," Mullen said Monday.

Relf certainly was operating at a lofty level to end 2010, his first season as starter. His 13 touchdown passes were the most by a Bulldog quarterback since 2003, and the fifth-most ever in a State season at that. Only six of his passes were picked as Relf completed almost 59%. And of course he rushed for 713 yards, second on the squad, with five touchdowns.

To put his footwork in perspective, the last time a MSU quarterback gained so much ground was 1986, by the great Don Smith. And what fans, even foes, didn't know at the time was Relf's most important run of 2010, that 71-yard jaunt to change momentum in the Egg Bowl victory, was on a bad hamstring that would have sidelined most players.

No wonder Relf is getting some support for All-SEC in the preseason. Most regional observers rank him the third- or fourth-best triggerman in the league, and due to off-field incidents elsewhere Relf technically is the only returning starter in the whole Western Division. Higher levels, indeed…not that the boss is backing off his lead Dog at all.

"I don't know if it registers with him," Mullen said of Relf's preseason West Division status. "Because I'm constantly on improving. Chris understands that how he got to where is now is he bought into the program. And we've seen incredible improvement over the last two years."

This doesn't downplay the progress made by Relf's backups. Soph Tyler Russell (see Sunday Notebook) was seasoned in relief work last fall, and even tied a program record with his four-TD toss night against Memphis. Russell is already a capable pocket passer but has worked, lots, on becoming a real running threat. He won't ever be in Relf's class as far as rushing but Russell said he needs that capability to keep defenses honest, as well as to show toughness to the rest of the team.

Of course toughness is not an issue at all with Dylan Favre, it is keeping a cool head on the field and staying within the play-plans that the redshirt frosh has had to focus on. Meanwhile the competition for rotation reps remains as tight as a coach could hope for at the end of training camp. In a good way, Mullen means.

"It's a lot more fluid," he said Monday, but ensuing comments seemed tipped towards Russell. "Tyler has that experience, I can throw him in any point and not feel ‘uh-oh, this is his first experience'. He's had a great week of practice, it looked yesterday like he was ready to start. That's when you feel really comfortable with the backup."

The comfort level isn't as high with the untested third man, but with redshirt year over Favre is due to get on the field for real. Soon. "We're going to at some point early in the season get him reps, so he can take the first step," Mullen said. "So it's not a shock if he gets thrown in in a key moment in the game, he can go make a play."

What really matters is that not only does Mississippi State finally have a proven, productive starting quarterback with winning experience at the top. Mullen now also has depth at the position ready to play and prepared to perform. That is the most remarkable progress of this regime's first two seasons, easily.

"It's fortunate, you like to have experience at that. It's not like they are inexperienced in the league," Mullen said. "But it's good having a guy, especially when you get into game-one, that has played in games and when the lights come on knows how to prepare."

That guy was not available to meet with media Monday as Relf, a fifth-year senior, was taking care of graduation registration prior after classes and before practices.

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