The most recent evidence was assuredly on display as Nick Fitzgerald ran through, if necessary over, a staggered Ole Miss defense. And, mixed in just enough passing plays to round-out a Rebel rout.
This coming from a third-year sophomore with the best half of his Bulldog career ahead encourages Mississippi State’s football future. But it also points to how consistent and proficient Mullen has already been putting a winning quarterback in charge of his offenses.
So, then…how does the on-field results compare to the recruiting ratings?
Alright. Practically speaking it is a moot question. Signing day star rankings shouldn’t mean much when the lights are on and defenses are angry. Yet one angle on the 2016 Egg Bowl victory is irresistible. Fitzgerald was far, far from a recognized recruit out of high school, with just two stars awarded by analysts and two solid scholarship offers in his mailbox. Mullen took great pleasure stating Saturday evening that State had to beat-out Tennessee-Chattanooga for Fitzgerald’s services.
By contrast, the defeated rivals fielded a freshman who was acknowledged as the nation’s top quarterback prospect. Or if comparing ratings, he had as many stars in his rating as the last two Bulldog starting quarterbacks combined. Yet today the Golden Egg safely resides at Mississippi State.
And today also we take a look at Mullen’s quarterback recruits from all eight signing classes and look at the results, or not. Because even a quarterback guru can miss, or circumstances interfere.
Before looking at his own recruits though let’s give due credit to the quarterbacks Mullen inherited, and won with almost immediately. With all the achievements since it is easy to forget that 2009 senior Tyson Lee still ranks #2 in career passing accuracy at 58.8%, and is still top-ten in interception rate. Talk about instant development.
Yet long-time Bulldog football folk also recognize that whatever else Mullen accomplishes, his turning raw athlete Chris Relf (2008-11) into a true college quarterback should rank first. It’s still something of a wonder the previous staff even signed Relf who absolutely did not suit a pro-style offense. But a spread-scheme?
Relf fit in fine and fast, beginning with his epic second-half surge in the 2009 Egg Bowl to give Mullen his first rivalry win. By the time Relf was done he ranked second (at the time, now fourth) in completion rate and eighth (now tenth) in yardage. Remember too, Relf operated in a run-first scheme and his own powerful rushing did as much damage as his arm.
Now, what about Mullen’s own recruited-and-developed Bulldog quarterbacks? Listed by signing year:
2009: Tyler Russell (Meridian, MS) 4 stars
At the time this was the key recruiting win of Mullen’s first class. Not because Mullen had to steal the already-committed prospect, but because sticking by his commitment to State was a major vote of confidence by an elite quarterback and in-state star for the new regime. Russell clearly helped keep other commits in the fold and likely influenced others to sign on with Mullen.
Russell certainly did his playing part. He started 21 times out of 36 games, missing seven senior year starts and six whole games with injuries which did cost some total statistics at the end. What he did accumulate when healthy still ranks fourth in yards, third in completion percentage, and second in touchdowns.
Russell also represents an aspect of Mullen’s offensive approach that doesn’t get enough attention. While the coach certainly seems more comfortable with a runner-thrower, Russell’s pocket passing was plenty efficient without much of a called-keeper or scramble threat. Plus, it must be remembered, aside from Chad Bumphis the wide receiver corps was a good bit better than what Relf had to work with but still being built-up to serious SEC standards. Hopefully history is fair to his legacy which was soon overshadowed by his successor and the greatest of modern-day Dogs.
2010: Dylan Favre (Bay St. Louis, MS) 2 stars
As the Dire Straits song puts it so well, “it was just that the time was wrong”. There was no way Mississippi State could not sign an in-state star who had claimed every passing record possible in Mississippi high schools. (Most have been surpassed since and at his own school too, which might say something about that program and its level of competition.) The name alone was worth the signing day buzz too.
The problem simply was Favre did not fit Mullen’s offense as constructed at the time; and less so with Russell already developing in a specific style. Maybe if not for this Favre could have been big in time. He certainly had the arm and the nerve, which were his strengths and his weaknesses. As this writer said after watching a passing drill, Favre could throw a ball through a wall…and that’s exactly what he often tried to do with ill effects.
Favre stuck it out for a redshirt year and reserve duty in 2011, playing nine games with a touchdown before transferring. But he has returned to campus occasionally with no apparent hard feelings. Just, bad timing all around.
2011: Dak Prescott (Haugton, LA) 3 stars
And that third star was only awarded late in recruiting when his in-state school made a late run. So it is still correct and classic to claim Prescott as an ultimate obscurity-to-star story. And, one that his own nuclear-hot drive did as much or more to produce as anything coaching could do. Certainly a lot of abashed NFL scouts and draft managers have learned not to underestimate what a driven Dak can do.
His technical development is a story in itself, and needs application to Fitzgerald too. Prescott had a huge advantage as well in Russell’s starting presence. He not only could enroll early and redshirt a year, as a 2012 varsity freshman he was used in specific situations. Prescott seized those short-yardage and goal-line opportunities to move chains almost without fail; and score eight touchdowns split evenly between passing and running.
There was luck involved, too. We’ll never know how 2013 would have played out if Russell hadn’t gotten concussed on opening day, then hurt again in November. What is clear is Prescott was almost ready for SEC starting duty and got better under forced circumstances. His Egg Bowl heroics also set the stage for a huge Liberty Bowl showing and the glory of 2014-15. Ironically he couldn’t duplicate the rivalry win, not least as in ’14 he was hampered by a then-undisclosed hernia condition in the aftermath of the Kentucky game. It’s another great big Bulldog what-if?...
We don’t need to recite the records as Prescott has all that matter. And the final measure of his MSU legacy is what happened to the program upon his departure, as much as what he is doing at Dallas today. We could argue who is the greatest Bulldog ever, but few will question that it comes down to a short list of Jackie Parker and Dak Prescott.
Not bad for a two-plus-one star prospect, eh?
2012: Nick Schuessler (Loganville, GA) 3 stars
With Russell established and Prescott coming on, it was tough to promise a high school quarterback much of any immediate opportunity. Under the circumstance signing three-star Schuessler off an undefeated Georgia 5A championship team was actually impressive, even if the leading competition was Middle Tennessee State.
Except Schuessler didn’t even make it to camp. He opted for a fast transfer to Clemson and redshirted in 2012. Since then he’s been behind a certain Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, but to Schuessler’s credit he has won repeated academic honors and earned his degree. He will also likely have been on consecutive College Football Playoff teams, so it worked out OK.
2013: Cord Sandberg (Bradenton, FL) 3 stars; Damian Williams (Metairie, LA) 2 stars
If recruiting a quarterback the year before was challenging, signing anyone good this time was going to be even tougher. So Mullen swung for the fences, literally by using a scholarship on a well-rated baseball prospect. Mississippi State had next-to-nothing to lose but potential depth.
Sandberg did sign with the Phillies that spring. He’s spent the four summers since mostly in A-ball, this past season with Clearwater where he hit .230.
Meanwhile Mullen complemented one style of quarterback with another style who also had a state championship resume. Williams was much more in the spread-offense mold as a hard runner who could throw a pass. Plus Mullen liked the grit Williams showed in a tough prep league.
That got displayed earlier than anyone intended. Russell’s injury left Prescott alone at quarterback so the true freshman got some September non-conference snaps in two games. Fans were baffled…until Mullen’s wisdom showed. Because with Prescott out against Arkansas, Russell was again injured at the end of regulation. Williams called one snap in overtime and took the ball 25 yards for the winning touchdown. He also managed the Egg Bowl enough to keep it close for Prescott’s heroics.
That has proven to be Williams’ high-water mark. He got some mop-up snaps in 2014’s fun, redshirted at last in ’15, and came out second in this summer’s competition to Fitzgerald. Though, he did take over for most of the opener and in a fine fourth quarter at home-state LSU.
Prior to the Egg Bowl win he announced intention to transfer as a graduate. That didn’t keep Mullen from giving the oldest quarterback the one snap needed when Fitzgerald’s helmet came off. The coach understands why Williams seeks playing time elsewhere.
And, fans understand why depth is always essential.
2014: Nick Fitzgerald (Richmond Hill, GA) 2 stars; Elijah Staley (Marietta, GA) 3 stars
Now quarterback recruiting was an absolute must and Mullen got a pair of big, strong, physical kids. How big, was obvious in their first camp when the no-shorty-himself Prescott had to look up at both freshmen…as they looked up to him for cues how to develop in Mullen’s program.
It is worthwhile to remember that as late as September 2016 a few fans still insisted Staley should be the guy. No doubt, he is a physical freak of Newton-esque comparisons…to bring up another quarterback of Mullen’s SEC past. Had Staley been willing to invest all effort in football and not waste time—and risk injury—dabbling in basketball, things could have been really interesting. Even Favre didn’t have the sheer arm-strength which a gimpy Staley showed in bowl camp by ‘throwing’ punts for practice.
Staley gave up the fight after August, transferring to Tyler Junior College where he was this season’s backup. Somebody will surely give him another shot for sheer potential and Staley will be the better for a couple of years’ tutelage under Mullen.
There’s no questioning any more Fitzgerald was the better pick for 2016. And beyond. His two-star recruiting status arises from only one year as a high school starter; and that in a run-oriented option offense. It turns out his prep rushing was excellent preparation for Mississippi State, as a bunch of burned Rebels can attest. Faster than Prescott both off-the-line and in open field, Fitzgerald already owns the single-season record for Bulldog quarterback rushing; and with a big bowl could set the SEC standard.
It is the other half of his game that is work-in-progress. And progress has been made. The 55% completions rate is not on-par with the four previous Mullen starters, and the interceptions went up mid-season as Fitzgerald tried—often forced—some tougher throws.
No concerns though. He is, after all, a sophomore with one starting season under his helmet. Plus Fitzgerald spent spring, summer, and some of the season just trying to establish his place at #1. Now he goes into the second-half of his college career an unquestioned #1.
And based on existing evidence of Mullen’s other quarterbacks…the best is still in store.
2015: Nick Tiano (Chattanooga, TN) 3 stars
There were three scholarship quarterbacks already on the roster, all underclassmen. But Mullen expected attrition. So he had to find the right someone who knew the odds and the opportunity.
Tiano took the chance. The top-rated quarterback in Tennessee committed in summer and stayed with his call all the way to signing day. A routine redshirt year was useful and in spring-past Tiano caught attention working in the rotation. Including, some first-team turns which showed he wasn’t a bit intimidated, and able to surpass Staley in August.
Intangibles are no issue here. The ground-game skills are solid, the passing strength needs work. Which became a challenge during the season. Through no fault of his own live snaps were lacking because State couldn’t take control of non-conference business.
This leaves Tiano in an increasingly common position for young quarterbacks everywhere who are clearly behind a still-young starter: stay, or go play? Chances of catching much less passing Fitzgerald seem slim now, and all should understand a quarterback’s career clock runs faster these days. So, wait and see what the decision will be as fall exams loom and the bowl trip is settled.
EDITED TO ADD: Monday afternoon Tiano announced he indeed will transfer, school undetermined. He will not participate in bowl camp or game.
With four quarterbacks on the spring roster there was no plan to invest a scholarship last February. Instead Mullen did get a walk-on. And a good one as it turns out. Wyatt Roberts thought his career was through after a stellar juco career at East Mississippi and enrolled at State. Then, opted to volunteer.
He’s proven more than the usual walk-on quarterback, taking over the scout team offense and running it effectively. Cynics might call this more a comment on the Bulldog defense. The larger fact is Roberts serves a fine purpose already. Regardless of what Tiano chooses and whoever Mullen does sign next, he ought be in a varsity jersey too come 2017.