Especially not for a Mississippi State program with unlimited ambitions and sky-high expectations in 2015. Bulldog coaches have the usual late-spring and early-summer tasks; finalizing camp plans, securing the first rounds of early commitments, and so on. Yet you just know the thoughts keep coming back to this year’s team, this year’s intentions, this year’s opportunities.
So, then. What is the team, or specifically what are the lineups, that emerged from Dan Mullen’s seventh spring session at Mississippi State? Today begins a series looking group by group and position by position based on spring observations and summer projections.
In select locations this week, lucky fans can ask the big Dog himself about both. Mullen is participating in a four-day, six-stop stretch of the Road Dawgs Tour (see previously posted story for cities and times). If he is on the phone during Tuesday’s morning event, though, give the man room. Mullen will take a short shift on the SEC’s Western Division coaches teleconference that morning.
So we’re starting with the easiest position to evaluate, right? Right, if by easiest one means most obvious. Dak Prescott is The Man to a degree not experienced by a Bulldog quarterback since, who? Don Smith?
It’s no coincidence we suggest Smith. He after all was the last Mississippi State quarterback honored as first team All-SEC (1986) and considered for all-American. That was almost three whole decades ago. Now there’s another, newer name on the very short list of All-SEC triggermen at MSU. Ahhh, but what makes Prescott different from his predecessors?
This. He’s back as reigning all-conference quarterback, for a senior season.
Whether Prescott really intended to be on the 2015 roster as he walked out of the Orange Bowl locker room, or not, only he really knows. What matters by now is A) how gracefully Prescott handled his NFL-supplied evaluation; B) how he applied the results to his off- and spring-season efforts; and of course C) what is in store still to secure solid draft standing in 2016.
The A and B showed just fine in camp. So did the confidence acquired in ten junior year wins, something no State starting quarterback had ever scored in a regular season before. We’re not exaggerating this The Man business, because Prescott was just about all business in a spring he might have been excused for a little well-won slacking.
Nope. Not Dak. Or as he said after one particularly vivid practice day where the quarterback got in teammates’ faces freely, “I can’t get going if they don’t get going.” So intent was Prescott that sometimes he didn’t just get in facemasks; he’d thump a helmet to demand focus. And a few times he threw footballs right into defensive Dogs’ facemasks if Prescott thought some liberties were being taken on contact.
“Just friendly fire!” he joked, though maybe the eyes weren’t exactly comradely-like. Regardless, open passion from an all-conference quarterback in spring ball did more to motivate the offense than just passing. Or running, or whatever.
Now, a few numbers. In his 37 career games, just 21 of them starts, Prescott is already responsible for more touchdowns than any Bulldog before him (72). He’s first in career completions percentage and the only MSU passer to top 60% for that matter, while also having the best (i.e. lowest) interception rate. By mid-season he can re-write all sorts of other career marks such as becoming the first Dog to top 10,000 (rushing, throwing) yards.
Season records? Eleven, count ‘em, eleven belong to Prescott after the fabulous 2014.
Now for the non-easy part: how does the man who could be remembered in time as greatest State quarterback ever be even better as a senior? Prescott has the first part of that down, by stating he still must improve. That NFL report certainly registered in long-term career goals.
“I’m not where I want to be,” he said in April. “But I’m making progress.”
There is another point of progress for Prescott that started showing last season and accelerated in spring. He’s becoming a mentor to redshirted freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley. That doesn’t diminish dealings with true junior Damian Williams. It’s just that the veteran backup missed just about all real spring activity with a pectoral muscle issue.
Plus, after two seasons Williams’ talents are known. He’s a smart and aggressive quarterback in his own right, quicker to pull down the ball and take off much like Prescott’s years as backup and alternate in fact. What isn’t as appreciated is how Williams can throw a football. As in very well.
What suddenly stands between the veteran and regular 2015 work are the two younger passers who have an advantage Williams just can’t trump. They are taller. Even the 6-2 Prescott for that matter must look upwards at 6-5 Fitzgerald and 6-6 Staley. Leadership-wise it’s the other way around of course.
There’s no question Fitzgerald stood statistically taller. Able to practice and scrimmage every time he showed a good grasp of the offense. Partly no doubt because, remember, Fitzgerald enrolled in December 2013 and got an early initiation during Liberty Bowl camp. His passing style is more classic than other Bulldog quarterbacks, a sweet spin on downfield throws and smooth delivery. Also, while he isn’t supposed to run often, Fitzgerald has a sneaky escape from the pocket and towards the sideline that gains ground without getting hit. That’s the high school veer-option experience showing.
Staley remains a summer and pre-season wild card of sorts. Winter clean-up surgery and rehab had Mullen predicting the redshirt would only throw off a stool in spring. Staley beat that forecast and was able to throw from the direct snap. He could not run, or even roll out really.
Which was the best possible thing to happen for Staley’s development as a real passer. Unable to tuck and tote, he had to stand, look, read, and deliver. The results were impressive. By the third week Staley was not simply slinging balls around, he was throwing a true, precise pass. Though, he also got to show off the arm in special teams drills. Instead of having a punter kick the ball upwards, for convenience and more reps the coaches had Staley heave throws as high and deep as many a booter could send it.
So. Because of those rehab situations the summer pecking order is Prescott backed by Fitzgerald, then probably Williams and Staley depending on who is healthier. By August everyone should be. Prescott will make sure of that during individual throw-and-catch drills. Hey, he wants to leave a lot of records behind…but Prescott also wants to leave somebody ready to run the 2016 show.
“Just by making sure I get a supporting cast that’s ready to lead. Not just lead by example but lead vocally and get other guys to lead as well.”
There must be a cautionary note injected. Senior seasons for the best Bulldog quarterbacks have rarely gone as well as their preceding years, or even well at all for them and team. Just ask John Bond, Smith, Sleepy Robinson (oh, but if only he’d not been injured in September how 1992 and the SEC’s history might have been different today…), Wayne Madkin, Kevin Fant, Chris Relf, et.al. Their senior years weren’t always ‘bad’ seasons but neither did they match much less exceed what had gone before.
It’s another way where Dak Prescott can be not only different, but better. Even best.
NEXT: Running Backs