Fortunately there are more of the pros than there are cons for Mississippi State. Five full-time triggermen can keep plays snapping during preseason, can provide all the receivers every sort of pass, and give defenses all variations of looks.
Oh, and there’s the obvious benefit of camp competition. Not for the top job. That is securely in All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott’s strong hands. It is setting the preseason depth chart along with developing future starters that keeps Johnson jumping.
Why just ordering practice routine is a coaching challenge in itself. “Obviously getting five guys reps is tough,” Johnson said.
But at the same time it seems to be a good governor on not letting those guys’ arms get overworked. So it’s a nice balance. We get the necessary work we need to improve and become better players. And the ultimate goal is to get guys ready to play a football game.”
Presumably Prescott will be entirely ready for his senior season kickoff September 5. After that, things get interesting as Johnson splits-up repetitions to put everyone else on the field much as practical.
Were this game week, #2 would almost certainly be Nick Fitzgerald. The redshirt freshman got a spring promotion before leaving the locker room as true junior Damian Williams dealt with a pre-camp pectoral tear. Here in August Fitzgerald is holding his status on his own merits.
“He’s done a nice job,” Johnson said. “He’s gotten a ton of reps over the two years and he continues to improve. He still has a ways to go but I really like his improvement so far and willingness to become a better player.”
The interesting situation with Fitzgerald is developing the passing skills. Not the arm itself, as anyone who has watched a practice knows. “He definitely has a strong arm,” said Johnson. It is the angle of said arm, the footwork in the pocket, as well as reads and recognitions; the things Fitzgerald was not exposed much to in his high school veer option scheme.
“He came in from such limited pass-game experience obviously with the offense he ran. So it’s been constant mechanic work with him. And he’s done a nice job taking all the necessary steps.”
Classmate Elijah Staley’s progress has been slower, not least from that “pretty significant knee injury” as Johnson reminded. “So we’re just being very patient with him and getting him a ton of 7-on-7 reps.” That is doing wonders for Staley’s still-raw talents and tools, just as happened in spring ball when he couldn’t tuck and run at first sign of trouble.
Staley is getting used to staying put longer and finding somebody open. Like Fitzgerald though, Johnson is emphasizing details of arm angles and hand placement. “And throwing the ball at a level plane,” the coach added, which is something State hasn’t had to fret before with shorter quarterbacks. Now with tall Fitzgerald and even taller Staley, it is on the agenda.
On campus media day, Fitzgerald spilled some Bulldog beans by saying Williams would probably redshirt this season. Coaches since then put it at a “50/50” proposition, since only Williams has live experience after Prescott. Winning experience, too.
Johnson is not altering the practice regimen though, giving Williams the same number of snaps as normal. “Who knows what’s going to happen? That’s obviously a decision Coach (Dan) Mullen will make. My job is to get all five guys ready to put them in a football game.”
That includes true freshman Nick Tiano. Though clearly it would take some truly bizarre circumstances for him to play a varsity snap this season, Tiano is getting the same August treatment as the rest. Johnson likes how the new kid is coping, too.
“He’s extremely intelligent so picking up the stuff, the terminology, has been very impressive for a true freshman especially. He’s as talented as anybody we have here. So he has a chance to have a very nice career. I roomed him with Dak just so he can see how a big-time guy operates and try to pick up as much as he can.”
For that matter all quarterbacks will spend the next couple of weeks taking cues from all their peers, regardless of age and experience. Thursday also puts this quintet into more serious action at the first August scrimmage. It’s closed and no stats will be provided, so word on who did what will have to trickle out informally.
Not that Johnson would care about the numbers at this point. “Right now we’re just getting guys ready to play in a game. Once we get a little bit closer we’ll probably distributed a little bit more.”