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Being Nick Fitzgerald

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Nick Fitzgerald isn't just a name, it's a dream.

I know exactly what to expect, I know what I'm going to be going up against, I know exactly what's expected of me, I know what I need to do to perform well.
~Nick Fitzgerald

At 6'5'', 230 pounds, Nick Fitzgerald, surprisingly, wasn't cut directly from the earth's core. He was, instead, formed in the crucible of competition, putting his high school program on the map before emerging from a multi-man competition to replace the iconic Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. College football first found out about Fitzgerald last October when he compiled 536 total yards and scored seven total touchdowns in a win over Samford. With Fitzgerald, the nation is still learning and opposing defenses are still scrambling.

Fitzgerald didn't come out of nowhere. He, as a relatively lightly-recruited prospect with unlimited athletic upside, burst onto the scene in Richmond Hill, Georgia, a tight-knit town just south of Savannah. There he was a standout at quarterback and, before that, wide receiver for the upstart Wildcats, a do-it-all playmaker for a triple-option team. As a senior, Fitzgerald led the program to its first playoff win since 1996, topping traditional power Thomas County Central, and helped set a new school record for wins.  

Before becoming a star in Starkville, Fitzgerald, bigger, even, than the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival, was first a local legend.  

"You can tell by watching a kid if they are special. I remember we called a game against Glynn Academy and he was carrying three, four, five Red Terrors on his back into the endzone and I said right there 'this kid is something special'," nodded long-time area coach and local ESPN Radio personality Karl DeMasi. "It's something special that you get once in a lifetime. There are going to be those kids who are going to lift your program to the next level."

Early on, meaning really early on, there was a notion that Fitzgerald might be a tad different. Well before the bright lights of high school football, he was already garnering attention as a young grade-schooler. Though Fitzgerald's formative years remained well on the horizon, there were initial indications that prep football might be the unofficial beginning of his football career, not the end. Playing, often against older kids, Fitzgerald still stood out amongst his pigskin peers.       

"I think we noticed the difference in rec ball, in just that, in this league that he played in, a pretty competitive league here in Savannah, he was usually one of the top two or three dogs," explained Derrick Fitzgerald, Nick's father. "Even being that he was usually a year behind most of the guys, he was a top three guy in the league. And he was always a little bit bigger."

Physically, Fitzgerald has long been a cut above. His size and strength and athleticism and agility continue to be leading traits of his play to this day. Even in the upper level of football's minor leagues, the SEC, Fitzgerald's measurables are off the charts. There isn't a field he steps on where Fitzgerald doesn't immediately stand out, before the game and during it. Few players in the country are as imposing.    

Fitzgerald's frame is one that he has worked hard for. People see his toughness, not the years it took to develop it. A forging of iron and intensity, Fitzgerald honed his skills in the fire of the south Georgia sun. The opportunity to march a team into gameday as a starting quarterback in the SEC is one that Fitzgerald earned.        

"Nick developed," former Richmond Hill head coach Lyman Guy stated. "Nick's determination and development in the weight room; I think Nick's physical development and the training and his work ethic pushed him past. There were other kids in the coastal empire and our region who were just as good and had a little more attention that actually threw the ball more than we did. Nick's work ethic pushed him past those other recruits."   

There was a notable progression on the field, too. Making an impact wherever he lined up, Fitzgerald's versatility came with options. While his upside under center was obvious, sheer talent put Fitzgerald in play at a number of different positions. He, in 2012, started on the perimeter and was a back-up to first-team signal caller Dominique Allen, now a successful starter for The Citadel. That fall, Fitzgerald averaged 17.8 yards per reception.   

"When he came in as a freshman, we immediately identified him as a quarterback. At the time, through his JV years, we were actually running mostly pistol. It was the Statesboro game, we had 14-15 dropped passes, I realized we were behind in developing our receivers," Guy continued, of playing Fitzgerald out wide. "His junior year we had long debates."

Much like his upperclassman transition in high school, this summer, for Fitzgerald, is dramatically different than last. He has gone from competing for the starting job for the Bulldogs to being considered, this pre-season, for multiple national honors. Standing like a small forward, Fitzgerald is one of the game's most dynamic talents. After almost 3,800 total yards and 37 total touchdowns as a sophomore, potential has officially turned into production. Fitzgerald is now a national name.   

What Fitzgerald did last fall was unprecedented. He set new SEC records for 100-yard rushing games and average yards per rush by a quarterback, establishing nine new program marks, including some previously set by Prescott, the reigning NFL Rookie of the Year. No other player in the country had three games with 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards. Fitzgerald, in fact, led the league in total offensive yards, finishing with the third-most rushing yards in conference history; the only two players with more, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel, both won Heisman Trophies.  

After settling into his new role, Fitzgerald, playing in the toughest division in college football, found a second gear. Over the final seven games of last season, he rushed for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns; for point of reference, Lamar Jackson ran for 739 yards and six scores in that same span. In year one as a starter, having barely played in the season-opener, Fitzgerald finished with more total yards than four FBS teams.  

In addition to the remarkable performance against Samford, highlights, for Fitzgerald, include throwing for 328 yards and scoring six total touchdowns against Arkansas, rushing for over 250 yards and reaching the endzone five times in an Egg Bowl triumph over Ole Miss and earning MVP honors in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Fitzgerald, since his breakout game against the Bulldogs, ranks number one in the nation in touchdowns-responsible-for with 24 and total offensive yards per game at 363.5.

A year ago at this time Fitzgerald's name was not yet in the history books, nor was it fully atop the depth chart.  

"There were still a few of the other guys here with me competing for the job. It was a four-way competition going into fall camp," he recalled on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "Coming out, I ended up getting the starting job week two and finishing it out."

Fitzgerald, the person, hasn't changed much in that span; Fitzgerald, the player, most certainly has. The redshirt junior has made the most of his opportunities and improved from them.

"You know, twelve months is a long time in football terms. That's a lot of reps, that's a lot of passes, that's a lot of games, it's just a ton of experience. Comfortability is obviously going to be a lot higher now than it was twelve months ago going into camp," Fitzgerald acknowledged. "I know exactly what to expect, I know what I'm going to be going up against, I know exactly what's expected of me, I know what I need to do to perform well."

Just as a quarterback processes each play, Fitzgerald has used each moment to mature. He recently was a counselor at the famed Manning Passing Academy, a chance given to some of the premier passers in the country each year. He, joining Prescott and Tyler Russell, became just the third Mississippi State signal caller to work the camp. There, Fitzgerald worked with a number of young prospects, his peers and many accomplished professional players at a four-day event on the campus of Nicholls State. 

Fitzgerald was able to work directly with absolute football royalty: Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning. 

"A phenomenal experience. Anytime you get to hang around the Manning family and forty of the best college quarterbacks in the country, you're going to have a great time. It was awesome getting coached up by the Mannings and the other staff members," Fitzgerald smiled. "I had a lot of time to work with the kids there and try to pass down my wisdom, try to teach them as much as we could. Also, just try to build some friendships, some relationships with the other people. Overall, I think it was a great experience, I learned a lot and had a lot of fun."

Given the setting of being a star in the SEC, much less one of the best players in the country, there is a very real poignancy to Fitzgerald's production. From kids following his instructions in teaching drills in Thibodaux, Louisiana to high-schoolers following in his footsteps back on the Georgia coast, the shadow the 6'5'' talent casts is a long one. It's a remarkable responsibility for any young man, one that Fitzgerald, or any college football player, may not yet fully understand.  

Nick Fitzgerald isn't just a name, it's a dream.

"8th grade, I was starting to get into the game of football simply because I would go to the high school games to watch and see how great he was and I knew I wanted to be that dude, too," shared class of 2018 Richmond Hill wide receiver Sam James, a four-star prospect committed to West Virginia.

When you're a starting quarterback, you're the face of your team. Fitzgerald is the Bulldogs' big smile. Especially now as an upperclassman, he will set the locker room tone. A season ago, Fitzgerald led with his play; now he also does so with his profile. You can easily track progress in Starkville, counting, in more ways than one, in intervals of seven.   

There is an authenticity to Fitzgerald, a straight-forwardness that resonates. The son of an Air Force veteran, Fitzgerald approaches situations with an efficient simplicity. This fall, Fitzgerald's position will be a critically-important one; a proven playmaker on a largely inexperienced team. How he handles the ebb-and-flow of the season will help dictate how far Mississippi State goes.            

When teammates hear from Fitzgerald, they know he is speaking from the heart.

"Leadership is a very broad term. There are many, many different types of leaders and many different types of situations. Some people are big rah-rah guys, some people just lead by example. I think the main thing, when you're talking about leadership, is you should stay true to yourself and not be fake," Fitzgerald detailed. "I tend to stay quiet, try to lead by example and try to encourage my team as much as possible. We're trying to build them up, make sure they know their potential and making sure they live up to that potential."

Fitzgerald is fulfilling his promise with commitment and persistence, leading characteristics of the dual-threat signal caller. Growing up, Fitzgerald looked towards his coach and his father and saw the same man. The intertwining of family and football helped form a strong bond, a tie that brought generations together like chains between yard markers. For Nick's dad, the one-day difference in Friday night and Saturday afternoon has, in some ways, turned back the clock. Mr. Fitzgerald has seen his son play football for years; now he is taking it all in.

Many children have their growth measured on garage walls or pantry doors. There was a different hashmark for the Fitzgeralds, progress coming ten yards at a time. 

"I think, for me, it’s been a lot different than for a lot of dads in that I got to coach Nick all the way from rec ball to high school. I never really got a chance to just sit back and watch him play, which I get to do now. I’m loving it," Derrick reflected. "His progression has been phenomenal. I’m just proud of him, he’s come a long way."

Post-game conversations between father and son have have sometimes turned into sessions between coach and player. Such suggestions, from dad, in this case, are quite obvious. Nick has had a number of coaches throughout his playing career, one far more invested than all the others. Starkville to Savannah, where the elder Fitzgerald now coaches, reviews are always coming in. In addition to noted offensive guru Dan Mullen, the younger Fitzgerald has, quite literally and figuratively, his personal quarterbacks coach offering advice.     

"It’s both," Derrick answered. "You’re always looking just to see. I think last year, just watching, a lot of times he just wasn’t making the progressions you should be making as a quarterback. A lot of times he picked the guy and just waited on him, versus hitting another guy who was breaking down the middle of the field. We’d talk after the game and he’s like, 'dad, just be my dad sometimes'. And I know, but sometimes it’s hard to be 'just dad' and not critique, but I try."

The most natural comparison for any observer, coach or not, is with Fitzgerald and his high-profile predecessor, Prescott. Playing in eight games, Fitzgerald was the top reserve behind the now-SEC legend in 2015. The two athletes, with Fitzgerald developing his own brand, share more than just similar styles. Fittingly enough, only two players in conference history have amassed over 530 yards and seven touchdowns in a single game: they wore the same uniform and shared the same sidelines.  

Before taking the Dallas Cowboys to the NFL Playoffs, Prescott led the Bulldogs to newfound heights. In mid-October of 2014, Mississippi State was the number one team in college football, becoming the first program ever to go from unranked to top-ranked in a span of just five weeks. As the Bulldogs beat the likes of nationally-ranked LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in consecutive games, Fitzgerald, young and impressionable, was there watching.

Instead of trying to liken himself to one of the truly unique players in college football history, Fitzgerald is simply grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him.

"Dak Prescott, hands down, is the best quarterback to play at Mississippi State. He kind of changed the whole view of our program and got up in the pros doing big things," Fitzgerald exclaimed. "I would say he was a natural-born leader, he was someone that people, not just jocks, wanted to be around. I just sat back acting like a sponge, trying to absorb everything I could. I would watch how he handled himself on and off the field, around teammates, around the fans, around coaches."

Fitzgerald has helped the Bulldogs move on from Prescott, a seemingly-impossible task when first presented. Gracing magazine covers this summer, Fitzgerald has taken the torch from his former teammate. Mullen, who was Tim Tebow's offensive coordinator at Florida, has an impressive quarterback lineage in place at Mississippi State. If he wants, Fitzgerald still has two full seasons to go. There remains room for improvement for the soon-to-be second-year starter, a considerable notion given his staggering success so far.   

Ahead of kickoff, Fitzgerald has clearly found his comfort zone. After an uncertain recruiting process, the Fitzgerald's new home feels a whole lot like their old one. Everything, and everyone, is coming togther.  

"The people of Starkville, the people around campus and it goes back to the coaching staff as well when he was being recruited, they treat you like family. When you’re walking around tailgates folks are like 'hey, come over here and hang out for a little while'. They treat you like gold," Derrick stated. "That was the one thing that sold me. They really treat you like family during the recruiting process. With other schools it seemed a little more clinical, not quite as warm and embracing as Mullen and his staff were while he was being recruited."

Where the Fitzgeralds are from is largely Georgia Bulldog country, with some South Carolina Gamecock fans, the state line being just up the road, mixed in. Nick's uncle, Charles Pledger, played cornerback at UGA in the early 1990s. This September, Mississippi State will travel to Athens in what will be a homecoming of sorts for Fitzgerald. The last time these two programs met, another coastal Georgia-native, Darius Slay, now a top playmaker for the Detroit Lions, scored the visiting Bulldogs' lone touchdown on a 72-yard interception return for a score. 

Amidst all of the red back in Richmond Hill, Fitzgerald's relevance has resulted in a slightly-darker hue being seen around town.  

"As far as down here, you wouldn’t think there were a whole lot of Mississippi State folks in the area until you’re walking around with a hat or a shirt on, and somebody stops you and says  'you go to Mississippi State?' and I say 'no, I have a son...'. As soon as I say that, 'you’re Nick Fitzgerald’s dad!” and I’m like 'yeah, I’m Nick Fitzgerald’s dad'," Derrick chuckled. "So, it’s kind of unique."

Peaches to magnolias, here's where Fitzgerald currently stands: he is one of college football's top quarterbacks, the leader of his team, with a professional future suddenly a realistic possibility. The rise has been a meteoric one. Fitzgerald, almost overnight, has become an SEC superstar. In addition to recently being named to the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards, a potential run at the Heisman Trophy is, at the very least, now part of the narrative.

Everywhere Fitzgerald goes, he is recognized. There are more media requests. There is talk of both what he has already done and what he could still do. Fitzgerald is a very real point of discussion in the college football conversation.     

"In a way you just kind of have to take it with a grain of salt. If they say something good, if they say something bad, it doesn't really matter. I'm just trying to continue on myself, not really worry about what people outside of our program are saying. I'm more worried about what our coaches and the players are saying and how we can improve," he directed. "Let other people talk about hype and that kind of thing."

As the spotlight brightens, expect Fitzgerald, stiff-arm or two, to take it all in stride. 

"Nick is very comfortable with himself. He understands things, he is a very intelligent kid who is not easily influenced. I think that he will handle things quite well because I think he will do it like he has always done it," Guy pointed out. "It's worked for him at all levels now."

Bolstered by the momentum of a dramatic bowl victory, the Bulldogs have their sights set on the top of SEC West. Over the past three years, Mississippi State has beaten everyone on their side, except Alabama. The Bulldogs, at league media days back in July, were picked to finish sixth in the division; the motivation, for Mississippi State, is there. At the game's most important position, Fitzgerald is the type of player who gives the Bulldogs a shot against every opponent on their schedule.   

A number of showcase games, and the opportunities that come with, await. Mississippi State will host LSU on national television in week three, then play at Georgia and at Auburn in consecutive Saturdays. In November, the Bulldogs will welcome the Crimson Tide and, later, rival Ole Miss to town. On many occasions, the nation will be watching.   

Fitzgerald, stout and sturdy, is the type of player built for the unrelenting challenge of a season in the SEC.

"It's the pinnacle of college football, it's the best conference in college football, our's has the most competition. There's never going to be a week where you look at our schedule and we see we are playing someone from our conference and we're just like 'okay, it won't be that bad of a week'," Fitzgerald noted. "Every game is a struggle, every game is a battle. Everyone's big, fast, strong, talented and we all have the ability to win."

Mississippi State enters this fall having gone 4-2 over its last six games to end this past season. The Bulldogs, overall, lost four games by seven points or less; all, however, in the first half of the year. As wins down the stretch over Texas A&M and Miami of Ohio validated, Mississippi State ultimately figured out how to finish, a revelation which could prove to be a big deal looking ahead. 

An impressive Egg Bowl triumph also gave the program a boost. Playing in Oxford, the Bulldogs ran past the Rebels by a score of 55-20, the school's largest margin of victory since Mississippi State was Mississippi A&M. In that matchup, Fitzgerald threw three touchdown passes and rushed for a record 258 yards, the most in FBS football since Navy's Keenan Reynolds in 2014, and two more scores. The performance got the Bulldogs into the postseason.     

Moving forward, Mississippi State will have to lean on veterans like Fitzgerald, receiver Donald Gray, offensive linemen Elgton Jenkins and Martinas Rankin and safety Brandon Bryant as young talent develops. Continuity will be key.  

"We need to be consistent in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. We have to be firing on all cylinders every Saturday. There can't be a week where one of our phases is not working or isn't performing to the best of our ability," Fitzgerald made clear. "Two plays can change the outlook of the entire season and we really focus on the fact that those two plays could come at any time, so we have to give it our all every single play."

What's next for a redshirt junior already in the record books? Fitzgerald is focused on winning. With fall camp underway, preparations are underway for the Bulldogs' season-opener against Charleston Southern. From a technical standpoint, Fitzgerald is continuing to fine-tune his skills. One thing, however, is certain; Mississippi State enters the year with a proven leader out in front.   

The journey, albeit with more attention and anticipation, continues. Turns taken have come at full speed.   

"I don’t think we ever had doubts that as long as he stayed healthy that the next level was definitely a thing for him," Derrick talked of Nick moving from prep ball to college. "Now the fact that he’s being looked at for the next level, that’s the one we kind of both looked at each other and said 'OK, this is maybe a little further than we thought it would be'. We are getting calls from agents and trainers. We’re already starting to get that and, to me, that’s where it’s getting surreal.

Expectations, for any team or player, are always fluid. As Fitzgerald has improved, the status quo has changed. With each accomplishment, each threshold met, a new goal emerges.

"All along he was like 'hey, I just want to go to college, be a student, play some football and have some fun'. I told him to try to live the college life as much as you can, have a good time and then move on with life," Derrick concluded. "Now that this has taken off a little more, I think he’s kind of having to rethink some things as far as 'well, you know, I have to give this some consideration that this may really happen'."

High school to the SEC, wide receiver to quarterback, I-95 to US-82, it's been a very deliberate pathway to prominence for Fitzgerald.

Larger than life, Fitzgerald still has a small town style. There is power in that perspective for both him and those around him. Fitzgerald, standing on the big stage, appreciates every step along the way.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports