Not lost, really. Fitzgerald’s hard-hat had to be somewhere near. With someone specific, in fact, charged with keeping track while backup quarterbacks are on headsets.
“I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus, somebody was supposed to be holding on to it with me. I panicked, I started sprinting trying to find it, just knocking people out of my way. I was on a mission to find that thing.”
This mission was accomplished. So was Fitzgerald’s goal of taking his first varsity snaps in the 2015 season opener at Southern Miss. Though, he notes, “The play I was supposed to go in was the play we got a penalty on.”
The redshirt freshman quarterback more than made up for those five yards by running for 21 himself. The first down made sure Mississippi State could run out the win.
It also showed just how ready, eager Fitzgerald is to take advantage of varsity status now. Remember, he showed up immediately after fall 2013 high school graduation for a week of Liberty Bowl camp. Fitzgerald might be the most-practiced redshirt freshman quarterback in the country.
So, to finally get on the field, with helmet buckled and heart racing? “It was exciting. I’ve been kind of sitting there the whole game just praying for us to start clicking, starting putting it away. Just chomping at the bit to get on the field. It felt good to finally get out there.”
Two weeks later Fitzgerald is again preparing to play. OK, he always does that. Fitzgerald is the #2 quarterback after all, a play away and all that… Still with Northwestern State coming to Scott Field the announced intent of Coach Dan Mullen is getting young quarterbacks Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley some real varsity snaps. Preferably, early as possible.
In turn, Fitzgerald would be thrilled if his first play this week has similar results to his first play, period. It was not the initial play of the final State series that Hattiesburg evening; Dak Prescott handed off to Ashton Shumpert for a 20-yard run.
And while Fitzgerald was hunting his hat, a holding call left 1st-and-20 for him to inherit. No problem. Fitzgerald took the direct snap and moved to his left.
“It was kind of a read on the end. My tight end is coming back across, going to take out the next guy. I read the d-end, he bites down and I get to pull. And I was chomping at the bit to run the ball! I got the read I wanted and I was able to make something out of it.”
Curious, huh? Most new college quarterbacks would itch to throw a pass. Then again Fitzgerald came from a high school system that emphasized option offense. So running, reading, and keeping is not second nature. It’s his first.
Besides, “I think if I’d tried to pull up and throw something I’d probably have been taken out immediately!”
This weekend his coaches and assuredly Bulldog fans want to see the arm. Two spring camps have earned high praise for Fitzgerald’s range and touch. But throwing a real pass on the real field with a real (albeit lower-division) defense? That’s the true test.
One which Mullen and Johnson have been preparing Fitzgerald for. As the first backup to Prescott—that’s with junior Damian Williams trying to maintain a belated redshirt—he does get to work with the first offense each week. Not just with his runners and throwers, either. “To kind of get the feel for different snaps from center, the speed of it.”
Fitzgerald has been getting up to speed in other aspects. Having played a few real snaps as well as a preseason at #2 gives him a different preparation process.
“Now that kind of know how to watch film, what to look for, it turns out to be different way you look at it. How you study each individual player, the schemes. Now you know you’re actually going to be in the game against them so you take it more serious.”
Seriously enough that besides regular unit meetings and talks with his coach, Fitzgerald spends evenings doing homework. Now that includes for-real scouting. “Making my own assumptions of the team,” Fitzgerald calls it.
Fans are certainly assuming the backups will show their stuff this Saturday on Scott Field. Not just Fitzgerald, but classmate Staley. This makes for interesting emotions, Fitzgerald admitted.
“I mean, you never really want to share reps, with the limited time you get to play! But he’s my buddy and I’m excited. I’ve never got to see him play in person and he’s been hurt for a while. So it would be nice to see what he can do on the field.”
“We’re still good friends and really close. We’re all helping each other out for the betterment of the team. And if we’re not the best one we want the best one to play. But, everybody still wants to play.”
Hmmm. Sounds like a fan, eh? You know, the football truism that everyone’s favorite quarterback is the #2 guy? This is not true at Mississippi State this fall of course. Prescott is the beloved Bulldog and undisputed face of this team.
But…when he does take the field, expect a rousing greeting for Fitzgerald.
“I mean, I’m glad people have confidence and they want to see me play. I want to play.”