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Nick Fitzgerald is Ready to Break Out of Dak Prescott’s Shadow

By Jim Johnson
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Can Nick Fitzgerald surpass Dak Prescott as the greatest Mississippi State quarterback... ever?

Mississippi State started last season with a quarterback competition. That lasted all of one game before Nick Fitzgerald firmly shut, locked, and bolted the door on challenger Damian Williams.

Williams has since transferred to Texas State because, as long as Fitzgerald is there, no one else has a chance to start in Starkville.

His head coach, Dan Mullen, knows a thing or two about star quarterbacks, something he has in Fitzgerald.

An Urban Meyer disciple, Mullen followed him from Notre Dame to Bowling Green to Utah to Florida, coaching the likes of Josh Harris, Alex Smith, Brian Johnson, Chris Leak, and Tim Tebow.

Mullen struck out on his own in 2009 to become the head coach at Mississippi State. He proved to be more than just Meyer’s lackey, developing Dak Prescott into the greatest quarterback in school history.

There’s no question that Mullen knows how to identify, evaluate, and develop quarterback prospects, and he clearly saw something in Fitzgerald.

“I knew the skills that Nick had. I thought, since the day he's got on campus, he was our most athletic quarterback. So, we knew he had the athleticism. We knew he was a great runner. He ran a lot of wishbone in High School,” Mullen began.

“So when you get into making decisions in the run game, that was going to be very, very natural for him. And I knew he had a really strong arm. So it was going to be how he adapted to playing every day, his decision-making within the pass game. And I think from game one to the final game of the season, you saw a great deal of improvement with him doing those things and understanding the system. So I wasn't surprised, even though I know coming out of high school, he wasn't a very highly rated player, didn't have all of the accolades that a lot of other recruited players had, but I knew he had the skill set.”

After Fitzgerald’s 2016 campaign, it’s clear that he will one day be mentioned alongside the other greats that have prospered under Mullen’s tutelage. In fact, it won’t be long now until he begins to surpass a few, if not most, of them.

There is no doubt that the physical traits, the “unteachable skills”, as Mullen refers to them, are there for Fitzgerald.

“Nick was always a speedy guy, he can pull away from you easily,” senior linebacker Dez Harris told the room at SEC Media Days.

“People saw his athleticism last year,” Mullen stated, “we knew he would be a great runner with the ball.”

What’s frightening to think about, for those outside of Starkville, is that Fitzgerald may not have been anywhere close to the player he can become.

“His game has grown tremendously,” senior wide receiver Donald Gray gushed. “Y’all haven’t seen the beginning of it yet. That guy is going to be amazing.”

If Dak Prescott’s development as a passer, between his sophomore and junior campaigns is any indication, Gray is right on target.

In 2013, as a sophomore, and his first year as a full-time starter, Prescott threw for 1,940 yards, ten touchdowns, and seven picks, with a 126.58 passer rating, and a 58.4% completion percentage.

As a junior, in 2014, Dak went for 3,449 yards through the air, 21 touchdowns and ten interceptions, with a 151.72 passer rating, and a 61.6% completion percentage, whilst maintaining his rushing production, albeit a little less efficiently.

Now, Fitzgerald’s first year as the full-time starter, like Dak, his sophomore year, was actually better than his predecessor’s.

He finished with 2,423 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, with a 124.33 passer rating and a 54.3% completion percentage.

Mullen also believes fans will see an improved Fitzgerald. “It’s about learning the quarterback position, you’re going to see a much better quarterback,” said the Head Coach. “He may not make all the highlight plays but he’ll be a better quarterback.”

Mullen went on to, when comparing Prescott to his successor, offer, “Nick may have more potential than even Dak did. We have to see if he has the work ethic, Dak is an absolute grinder, Tim (Tebow) the same way, Alex Smith the same way, Nick is still learning how to be a grinder. But he certainly has the potential to be a great player.”

After scoring 37 touchdowns and leading the conference in total offense, last year, one could argue that Fitzgerald is already a great player.

The question is whether or not he can surpass Dak as the greatest player.

Don’t rule it out.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP