“Obviously as a quarterback people look to you to lead them through some things,” Fitzgerald said. “It just comes from experience, me learning how to be that leader and improving on it every day.”
OK, so maybe the improvement doesn’t show every day. Much less every game. But Mississippi State is making progress in some offensive areas both on and off the playing field. Some is certainly and encouragingly due to Fitzgerald’s own improvements.
Which is what the sophomore starter has planned for this open date week on the field. “Just work on yourself,” he said.
“In practice try to tweak some of the things coaches talk about, work on specific things. Your throwing motion, your drops, your reads, things like that. Anything that needs to be polished up.”
That polishing began Tuesday as the Bulldogs returned to practicing for the first time since victory at Massachusetts. Maybe Mississippi State didn’t dominate start-to-finish as hoped. The Dogs even fell behind for a half and looked awfully uncomfortable in the process.
But a fast and successful drive, directed by Fitzgerald, before intermission changed the momentum and in the second half State took over. Upon further review the quarterback saw a better overall performance, too.
“The defense had nine drives where they had nine total yards. Offensively we moved the ball, we only had one three-and-out which was pretty great. I think it was a good, solid game going into the bye week and get ready for Auburn.”
There’s so much to get ready before State’s third conference contest. The first two were mixed results, scoreboard and otherwise. The Bulldogs came out stronger and withstood South Carolina’s second half recovery with Fitzgerald going the four-quarter distance. LSU was an entirely different matter.
The host Tigers owned the first half and still led big late before a forced turnover and unplanned quarterback change produced a Bulldog rally. It fell short 23-20, and typified the inconsistency Coach Dan Mullen sees. State has played very good quarters and halves in all four games, but not been strong start-to-finish.
Which means, what? Fitzgerald takes an optimistic view.
“It just shows we’re a young team, but we’re growing up,” Fitzgerald said. “We can get down but we can come back. It shows we can play for the most part a whole game well, we just have a few things more we need to tweak and we’ll be alright.”
Tactically and technically, the quarterbacks—all of them—are using this bye-week to tweak their individual games. For Fitzgerald it begins with improving his passing, mostly the accuracy. After four games he’s just under 60%, which is actually right on the same sort of track as all Mullen’s regular starters at State.
But he also knows better defenses remain on the schedule than played to-date. So Fitzgerald, same as Damian Williams and Nick Tiano, keep tweaking. And, improving communication with blockers and receivers. Though as Fitzgerald said, whether playing a FBS independent like UMass or SEC powers, he isn’t forcing anything to anyone in the air.
“I don’t really key-in on one receiver or any group of receivers. More whatever the defense gives you, you take.” Fans hate hearing that, but it’s fact. Especially so with a still-developing quarterback, and for that matter an offense which hasn’t figured itself entirely out.
One aspect which is increasingly settled, is how much better the Bulldog ground game is with Fitzgerald calling cadence. His 110 running yards were crucial Saturday, just as his position-record 195 yards against South Carolina. Also, at Foxboro he showed willingness to run, really run from under-center.
But those weren’t necessarily called draw plays, Fitzgerald explained.
“I just kind of felt pressured and took off, trying to get some yardage on the plays.” Which gets us back to take-what-defenses-give, eh? So are most of his passing play selections.
“As for checkdowns, that’s just comfortability getting through reads quicker to get to the checkdown instead of just trying to make a big play and do something stupid, and keep it moving.”
As the Bulldogs move into the meat of their 2016 schedule more big plays will be needed, of course. The trick is not forcing what isn’t there. Maybe a fifth-year senior would have such liberty. But for now fans and media and even players need frequent reminding, this is a quarterback not yet half-way into his varsity career.
Fitzgerald also is a quarterback still figuring out what is and what isn’t leadership. As Mullen reminded this week, State continues coming to terms with the fact Dak Prescott, the biggest of big Dogs, calls another locker room home.
It’s just the nature of the position that the next quarterback, whoever he is, must become a leader. With every positive play on the field, Fitzgerald grows a little bit too in his off-field stature. He knows the demands only increase.
“Obviously with more and more game experience will come more calmness or the pressure might lift a little bit. But it’s not something that’s going to really be lifted ever because you’re still expected to perform week-in and week-out.”
And, expected to do his part to set the team’s tone and the season’s standards. It’s just what a quarterback does, Fitzgerald agreed.
“But we do have to have more people step up. And we have had multiple people step up to take leadership roles. And that’d always a good thing to see.”