Belk Bowl Now, Quarterback Competition Later

You’d think given the wide-open opportunity 2016 presents, Nick Fitzgerald would see bowl camp as his chance to stake an early claim. Nope. “We’ll worry about all that competition stuff later on.”

That’s how Fitzgerald and his fellow underclassman quarterbacks are approaching these practice days. As Fitzgerald put it, this camp is about winning the Belk Bowl. Come spring camp, now, it’s the quarterback job to be won.

Even if rising sophomore Fitzgerald clearly has the winter edge as measured by first-offense snaps and order of drills, he claims that means little. True junior Damian Williams takes his own turns, then true frosh Nick Tiano; and when he’s not spending time with basketball Elijah Staley gets in the middle of that order too.

“I think we’re actually doing evenly between the quarterbacks,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re all switching out among different groups. I’ll try to get different reps with different people, just trying to work on fundamentals and not worrying too much about any type of competition right now.”

As far as 2015 live snaps, it wasn’t even at all. Fitzgerald was Dak Prescott’s backup all year, what with Williams finally getting to redshirt and Staley behind after from spring injuries. The chances he got, Fitzgerald showed off just fine. He completed 11 of 14 passes without a turnover for 235 yards, or 21.3 yards per completion; with three touchdowns too. Mop-up minutes or not, those are flashy numbers for a second-year freshman.

They also make for a more poised player coming into his third, yes, third bowl camp. Remember, Fitzgerald enrolled in December 2013 and got to work for a week with the varsity ahead of the Liberty Bowl. Now he’s felt the fire for-real though.

“I mean you definitely have a lot more confidence once you finally get through a game,” he said. “You learn what it’s going to be like when you’re passing so you have a different mind frame at practice, trying to make this more like game reps. It kind of builds on itself.”

By the same token, real games expose aspects that can’t be written-off as simple practice mistakes. Fitzgerald said he knows now the technical details to work on over the winter, before spring competition starts. Like keeping the hips open, the front arm out of the way of his passing motion, and always the footwork.

“Just the little things to tweak and I’ll be better off for it.”

Williams and Tiano aren’t standing-pat on their own abilities and varied experiences. Williams has twice the varsity seasons to his credit as Fitzgerald, and while sitting out this third year was the right way to go it has left the junior hungrier.

“And we’ve been pushing each other since I’ve been here,” Fitzgerald said. “We always knew it would come down to a competition. We’ve been roommates for two years so we talk about all kind of stuff. So we’re both excited to get out there and compete.”

At the same time, and as much as they want their own shot at starting status, every Bulldog quarterback will miss Dak Prescott’s presence. Even now with the senior spending most of the practice periods watching younger triggermen take turns, they can feel the old Dog’s eyes on them. And that is a great thing, per Fitzgerald.

“He’s always been really, really, really helpful, always trying to fix things for you.” Even, he said, fix what a coach might critique or just plain cuss at in practices. “He can explain it in a different way, coming from a player’s standpoint.”

Also, while none of the young quarterbacks can mimic Prescott’s style of play, the tougher challenge will be replacing his intangibles. That is, his pure leadership. “Dak is Mississippi State,” Fitzgerald said.

“He embodies what you want to be, so if you want to be a leader watch him. Even if you’re annoying him, he’ll get over it!”

By the schedule, Tuesday is the last day where Coach Dan Mullen and staff will focus on developing Dogs for the future. Wednesday begins the bowl preparation phase, lasting through Sunday when Mullen lets everyone head home for Christmas. Prep work resumes on the 26th in Charlotte.

But for one more day, “This is our time to really work on our fundamentals,” Fitzgerald said. Soon enough, “we’ll start working I spring practice and going into the summer. It’s even right now.”

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