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The Arrival of Nick Fitzgerald

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Nick Fitzgerald's stock is on the rise, as he is developing into one of the league's most exciting playmakers.

Every week I look for him to improve and he has done that.
~Fred Ross

In Saturday's win over Texas A&M, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw for 209 yards and rushed for 184 more, setting the tone for an upset that shook the College Football Playoff Poll at its core. In knocking the Aggies out of the top four, Fitzgerald moved into his own elite company; he joined Johnny Manziel and Cam Netwon as the only SEC signal callers to pass for over 200 yards and rush for more than 175 in a single game in the last 20 years. While most clubs welcome members with a warm handshake, those two have kept others out with a cold, bronzed palm. 

Fitzgerald is not a Heisman Trophy candidate. His recent play, however, has been most-oustanding. Before bursting onto the national scene with a 74-yard touchdown sprint on the first play from scrimmage against Texas A&M, Fitzgerald scored seven total touchdowns the week prior in a win over Samford. He is one of just a handful of players in the country to reach that total this fall; Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who will almost certainly be awarded the game's top individual honor next month, is one of the others. 

In the win over Samford, Fitzgerald became just the third player ever in the league with a 400-100 game, topping the respective milestones passing and rushing. He tied a handful of Dak Prescott's program records, briefly being mentioned alongside the greatest player MSU has ever seen. Fitzgerald and Prescott are the only two Bulldogs ever to reach the endzone seven times in a single outing. That afternoon, Fitzgerald helped Mississippi State set a new school mark with 669 yards of total offense.  

"Honestly, as guys go make plays they are open and I was able to just put it were it needed to be. A lot time I throw the ball and guys are normally blocking, but not tonight. Guys were getting open and I was just able to find a way to get it to them and they did the rest," he explained.

Upsetting the Aggies, Fitzgerald's historic effort earned him Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors from the SEC. A signature victory comes with great credibility.   

Along with the highlight-reel plays, improved consistency and efficiency are becoming staples of FItzerald's performances.

"You want to see quarterbacks not make the same mistakes over and over again. If they make a mistake, they see that mistake, realize that mistake and go correct themselves. You are starting to see that from Nick," Dan Mullen detailed. "You are starting to see him understand the offense, have more experience with the plays and the number of plays he is making is increasing because of his comfort in his decision making."

The numbers, for a player who was not the full-time starter earlier in the year, are quite staggering. Fitzgerald has thrown for 1,705 yards, run for 839 more and has scored 24 total touchdowns in setting the tone for the improving Bulldogs. In his limited opportunities, Fitzgerald has already thrown for over 300 yards in a single game, thrown for over 400 yards in a single game and topped the century mark on the ground five separate times, good for tops in the conference. The only quarterback in college football with more 100-yard rushing games than Fitzgerald this fall is Jackson.

For point of reference, Fitzgerald has passed for more touchdowns than Trevor Knight and has rushed for more yards than Joshua Dobbs, Chad Kelly and Sean White put together. 

Still settling in, Fitzgerald is relatively-early in his development as a starting signal caller in the SEC. That process is now officially underway.

"Each and every week he is going to get better. He's young and this is his first year starting at quarterback," star wide receiver Fred Ross nodded. "Every week I look for him to improve and he has done that."

Beyond the box score, Fitzgerald has brought a very functional skill set to Dan Mullen's offensive scheme. Though Fitzgerald's predecessor, currently making history as a superstar rookie with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, is simply not a fair measure, the fit has proven to be a similar one. An obvious dual-threat talent, Fitzgerald brings versatility to Mississippi State's offensive attack and can be the schematic focal point as both a runner or a passer. His big-play ability has been a big boost for the Bulldogs. 

Additionally, Fitzgerald's toughness, see his late four-yard touchdown run versus the Aggies, has resonated with his teammates.   

"Honestly, I saw a hole during the play so I took it," Fitzgerald recalled of his final score. "There was only one guy on me in the end, and my team worked so hard for me all day. There was no way I wasn't going to score that for them."

Mississippi State has compiled 1,243 offensive yards the last two games and 129 total points over the past three. The Bulldogs have moved inside the top half of the league with 446.1 yards per game and rank fourth the conference with 2,042 rushing yards. Fitzgerald is third in the SEC in total offense and is 7th nationally with 32 runs of ten yards or more. All signs point to production with this offense, with trends moving in the right direction. Notable late season progress is being made. Potential bowl eligibility is at play.     

Fitzgerald's stock is on the rise, as he is developing into one of the league's most exciting playmakers. The Georgia-native is poised to enter the off-season as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. 

"He's been up and down throwing the football as a young guy, and he's getting better. He's got a live arm, he's a big guy and a really good athlete. He was highly accurate today. He threw some balls into some really tight coverage today, some slants and some things like that," Kevin Sumlin added. "He was the best player on the field today."

At 6'5'', 230 pounds, Fitzgerald is the modern-day prototype. He has a strong arm, great mobility and is bigger than some of the pass rushers that pursue him. When Dominique Allen, now the starting quarterback for unbeaten The Citadel, was under center at Richmond Hill HIgh School, Fitzgerald was the team's leading receiver. In one of his first games as the first-team signal caller, Fitzgerald scored, of all possible outcomes, seven times. An early enrollee, he stepped on campus at Mississippi State in January of 2014.     

For all of Fitzgerald's physical skills, his immeasurables have long set him apart. 

"What separates Nick are the intangibles he has. The Lord has blessed him with size and everything, but he is an intelligent kid, a very dynamic decision maker. Even at the high school level," stated Lyman Guy, Fitzgerald's prep head coach.

His profile already growing, Fitzgerald will next lead the Bulldogs onto the national stage to face top-ranked Alabama; the Crimson Tide have college football's premier defense and, as defending champions, hold the game's most important distinction.

Room for improvement remains as Fitzgerald continues to develop, fine-tuning his talents against some of the best competition in the country. The framework, however, is undoubtedly in place. In fact, recent results have been record-setting. Production is now in stride with potential for Fitzgerald and Mississippi State enters its toughest challenge of the schedule on a winning streak for the first time in a calendar year. 

Fitzgerald, still early on in his tenure, has hard-earned momentum leading him forward. Already, he has a step on history.

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