Steve Robertson -

Strong 2016 Finish and Bowl Berth Push Quarterback’s Progress

That shadow will never fade. Dak Prescott’s legacy will remain as long as Bulldogs play football. At the same time…his successor is beginning to cast his own shadow.

Certainly the spotlight now shines on Nick Fitzgerald. Shines brightly, too, what with the glittering reflections off that Golden Egg he helped bring back home. His feats in the regular season finish served to validate a three-month process turning Fitzgerald into Mississippi State’s accepted starter.

“And I’m going to take it into the off-season, keep working,” Fitzgerald said. “And next season there’ll be no doubt.”

Fitzgerald could fairly say there’s no doubts today. As practices get going this week for Mississippi State’s trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl he is the unquestioned quarterback for post-season. 2017 is assumed.

Next season, now, is when the rising-junior’s own legacy should take shape. Not that Fitzgerald claims anything close to Prescott’s stature. This isn’t the point, either.

“He was a phenomenal player,” Fitzgerald said. “So if they’re going to keep comparing me to him I’m doing something well.”

He is. Rather he was as 2016 wound-down. Though football is the complete team game Fitzgerald unquestionably came to the November forefront as the Bulldogs turned themselves and their season around. In victories over Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and for that matter a shootout with Arkansas, the quarterback claimed the lead. Headlines, too.

“He’s really come a long way and developed as a quarterback,” said Coach Dan Mullen, who knows a thing or three about developing Dog signal-callers. A very long way and in a pretty short time, Fitzgerald figures about his first season as starter.

“Obviously I expected to come in and play very well. At times I did, at times I didn’t. But I’m going to take that into the off-season and keep going.”

With a game left this season Fitzgerald will keep adding statistics and gaining attention. He likely merited more of the latter than received so far as all-conference awards are announced. Fitzgerald wasn’t mentioned on the Coaches All-SEC (two) squads Tuesday, with the Associated Press teams due out tomorrow.

To be fair none expected Mississippi State’s quarterback to be first-team there seemed at least some chance of second-team. State’s sub-.500 record, and the fact Fitzgerald did his best work in the last month, did limit exposure. Statistically though he is right there with first-teamer Jalen Hurts and second-team Josh Dobbs.

Fitzgerald had more total yards than both, and was equal to Dobbs and one-up on Hurts with 35 total touchdowns. For further comparison Prescott had 39 total touchdowns in 13 entire games. Fitzgerald did start all dozen games but missed enough quarters to take a complete contest off his tally.

And that brings up the real 2016 twist. One game, make that one quarter into the season Fitzgerald wasn’t in a shadow.

He was under something of a September cloud.

“Obviously the first game I had a low. Two series, they pulled me out,” Fitzgerald said. Two weeks later he had to come out when his helmet came off at LSU. Backup Damian Williams rallied the Dogs that week, too, just not quite to victory.

Mullen never wavered in commitment to his selected starter. Or in helping the next quarterback cope with that legendary shadow.

“I always told Nick worry about who you are,” Mullen said. “We’re going to build around you and what you do well. All year people worried about who he was not instead of who he was. And he’s a pretty good quarterback. He has a different skill set than some quarterbacks we’ve had.”

Different than the finished-product Prescott for one thing. And this is where Bulldog fans, and foes too, should pay attention. In his own early career Prescott was quicker to run even though he had a potent ground game around him already. Polishing his passing shifted State’s offensive emphasis, especially in 2015.

What Fitzgerald did on the ground this year is literally unprecedented. He not only blew past Prescott’s record for quarterback rushing, and in one fewer game. He set the single-game rushing record for any Bulldog position with his 258 yards in the Egg Bowl.

Contributing in no small way was maybe the best all-around effort of fall by the offensive line. “They blocked their butts off,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s always great when you’re running and no one is around you. To do it in a big-time game is surreal.”

Fun, too, for Bulldog fans still quipping weeks later about Fitzgerald spottings, running wide-open anywhere from coast to coast. An end-zone angle of Fitzgerald burning that way with a posse of out-run Rebels behind, carrying not a football but the Golden Egg, will be proudly displayed for decades to come.

Only Boobie Dixon (2009) and J.J. Johnson (1998) have run for more yards in a season than Fitzgerald’s 1,243…and he has a whole game left to maybe surpass both. In the bigger picture, though, focus shifts to developing his passing skills. Reading coverages better and faster, finding the best matchups for situations, and as Mullen always stresses adding a progression or two each year.

It took five years for Prescott to get there, remember. Fitzgerald is only half-way into his varsity career. His coach is well-aware of how much football is ahead and how much work remains. Beginning now,” Mullen said.

“He needs to step up and be a big leader moving into the off-season. If he does he will become a great quarterback. If he’s going to be a great quarterback it starts today.”

This off-season does present an interesting challenge. Fitzgerald went into 2016 one of four quarterbacks and not at all set to start. Now he is number-one, with a much smaller competition corps. Williams will use his graduate transfer opportunity. Nick Tiano will straight-up transfer back home to Chattanooga.

So going into spring only walk-on Wyatt Roberts remains as a roster quarterback. Mississippi State expects to sign a high school star this month but until the ink is on papers and the player on campus…

This just means now Fitzgerald has to create his own competition with himself. Or as Mullen said, “If you’re going to be the guy, go be the guy.”

By same token, what Fitzgerald did overcoming September shocks, finding his footing and his role in October, and rallying Mississippi State to a finer finish and another bowl trip certainly sets him up as the guy. Plus, he’s done something Prescott couldn’t. Fitzgerald started an Egg Bowl victory, one which forever bears his imprint as The Guy.

“Throughout the rest of the season there was a lot of highs, a lot of lows, a lot of upside-downs to learn from a lot of things to build on,” Fitzgerald said. “To end it on something so high as this as a big-time Egg Bowl win is phenomenal, to see where we started and what we’ve been through and to finish strong like this.”

Besides, the larger reality is…the Egg Bowl wasn’t a finish. It was a beginning. Not least, the beginning of another stage of being compared to the predecessor. Fitzgerald accepts it just fine.

“To an extent Dak Prescott really was Mississippi State football for a long time. To be the guy that came in after him obviously you knew everything you did was going to be compared to him. Every mistake or every triumph was going to be compared to what he did. And I don’t know if that’s ever really going to change here.”

Then again, given how 2016 developed, it’s entirely possible a few years from now future Bulldogs are being compared to Nick Fitzgerald.

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