STARKVILLE, Miss. – Chris Relf has had a year to study Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen's spread offense and he's come to an important conclusion.
"I think it's perfect for me," Relf said.
Just how perfect will go a long way to determining whether the long-suffering Bulldogs will go to a bowl for the first time since 2007 — and just the second time since 2000. Relf was a part-time player who struggled in Mullen's first year as coach before a breakout game against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl that gave him confidence going into the offseason.
That confidence helped him mount an offseason campaign to become Mullen's latest multitalented, headline grabbing quarterback.
The coach is known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks. He helped make Tim Tebow the most-watched player in college football as offensive coordinator at Florida. And he helped mold Alex Smith into a No. 1 NFL draft pick at Utah.
The lanky 6-foot-3 and 230 pound Relf is an athletic player who would like to join Mullen's growing group of success stories. He has embraced the enormous amount of work the coach demands.
"Coach Mullen will always push you to the limit," he said.
What Mullen won't do is give reporters much of a picture of what's going on in practice as the Bulldogs prepare for their opener against Memphis on Sept. 4.
He has stayed on message through the summer and during preseason practice: It's too early to tell who the starter will be, who plays is a reflection of performance in practice and situations in games, and he expects both Relf and No. 2 quarterback Tyler Russell to play.
Mullen showed he's willing to play two quarterbacks last season when Relf and starter Tyson Lee shared the position, so everyone expects Russell to be in the picture somehow. But the expectation this year is for Relf to start and take most of the snaps.
The coach has praised his quarterback since a strong spring performance and says Relf has tackled his to-do list of improvements. Relf got to know the playbook better with more repetitions, has tried to take a more aggressive leadership role and has put in extra work on his passing game.
"I think he's comfortable in the system now and he's put in a lot of work on his own just to improve himself," Mullen said. With "the time constraints the NCAA puts on our practice levels, a guy's got to go out an do more to become better."
Relf's natural inclination is to be reserved around his teammates, but Mullen has asked him to be a more vocal and visible leader. The redshirt junior led the Bulldogs offense through its summer workouts and threw with his receivers three times a week.
Teammates say they've seen a transformation from the sometimes tentative performances of last season.
In the nine games before the Egg Bowl, Relf had rushed for 394 yards and one score, thrown just 36 times and had a problem with turnovers.
Relf put it all together against Ole Miss in a 41-27 upset at the end of the season, though. He used his big body to brush aside defenders on the way to 131 yards rushing and a touchdown and he threw for two more. He's built on that foundation in the nine months since.
"I think he's a lot different," wide receiver Chad Bumphis said. "I think he's better. I know he's a more vocal leader. He's just better all around. He's pretty much the leader of our offense."
Relf wants to use that status for good. The Bulldogs were 5-7 last year and have had just one winning season in nine years. Mullen's hiring and a competitive run against a brutal schedule last year has fans buying tickets at record rates and expectations rising. Relf would like nothing more than to give them what they're craving.
"I want to take everybody with me," Relf said. "We want to win. We're going to go all out all season. We're going to put Mississippi State on our back."