2013 Practice Was Valuable Early Start to Quarterback's Development

Coaches talk about bowl practices as key for a program’s future. For Nick Fitzgerald, it is not talk.

It is truth.

Just flash back to three post-seasons past, when a lanky kid from Georgia arrived to join Mississippi State in Liberty Bowl camp. “I finished my last high school exam like the 12th of December or something like that,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I was full pads at practice the 14th.”

Full pads and fully practicing for all the campus bowl sessions. Fitzgerald had to turn-in the gear before those Bulldogs went to Memphis, per rule. Yet who is to say if that week-plus of exposure to college football in 2013 paid off the final weekend of 2016’s regular season?

In the game Mississippi State not only won back the Golden Egg, but a fifth victory which combined with the program’s lofty academic rating and a lot of losses elsewhere earned the Bulldogs another bowl berth. And, in turn, the next bowl camp.

Which to starting quarterback Fitzgerald might mean more in the longer term.

“It’s phenomenal that we’re able to fight our way into a bowl game. These extra practices are so critical when it comes to developing. That’s 15 more practices you’re not going to get if we hadn’t been going.”

Well, the Bulldogs are going. To St. Petersburg specifically for a December 26th morning date with Miami-Ohio. Fitzgerald has looked, a little, at the Redhawks.

Most of his attention goes to teammates. His teammates, and increasingly his team. At least it is Nick Fitzgerald’s offense after a big November and record-setting sophomore season. The quarterback is first to agree that starting, so to speak, slow is a large reason why Mississippi State needed special circumstances to acquire bowl eligibility.

Yet here they are in post-season for a record seventh-straight winter. And, not likely to take a Mid-American Conference opponent lightly. Not after that opening-day loss to a Sunbelt program that had the Bulldogs playing from behind all fall.

“I think that’s going to stick with us for the rest of the time, that we can’t overlook anyone or take any plays off. Because anyone can beat you.”

The situations aren’t identical. Still there are enough comparisons to December 2013 after that Bulldog bunch had to finish fast, and beat Ole Miss, to go bowling. The dates of both campus bowl camp and Fitzgerald’s graduation meshed nicely enough that the December signee was able to swap cap-and-gown for helmet-and-pads.

Nor did Dan Mullen hesitate to put the newest kid in camp to work, not least because Tyler Russell was out and Dak Prescott not entirely recovered from hjs own injury. “I had to run the second team offense,” Fitgerald said.

“So it was pretty nerve-wracking, I definitely didn’t want to mess up. Of course I messed everything up.”

That’s an exaggeration. Fitzgerald showed some flashes of what he could become from day-one. The real point is he received a priceless head-start on college ball and attention from one of the sport’s true quarterback mentors.

“You could tell by the way they were coaching and the amount of young guys getting team reps, everything was about development, not so much getting ready for a game,” Fitzgerald said.

Where this December definitely differs is, Fitzgerald has no scholarship peer to help develop. He is the only varsity quarterback to take a practice snap for three days now. Though, junior Damian Williams is due back Monday. Junior walk-on Wyatt Roberts has been #2 so far and Logan Burnett the third quarterback.

Fitzgerald has smashed Bulldog quarterback rushing records in his first real season. In fact he is just 230 yards behind Cam Newton’s 2010 SEC quarterback rushing record, in 14 games. More realistically, Fitzgerald needs just 148 yards to tie Boobie Dixon’s program record for season rushing (1,391) by any Bulldog.

Not too shabby for a fellow who began 2016 as target of questions, then a month into the season of criticisms. Now here Fitzgerald is settled in as the next great Mullen quarterback. Maybe his best yet? That’s a high standard given what Prescott achieved.

Yet remember that when Fitzgerald came to campus three Decembers ago…Prescott was still the alternate starter and only beginning to tap into all-around potential. “I watched everything he did and tried my best to do everything he did. So I definitely knew what the job entailed.

“Actually doing it, it took me a little while to get the routine down and figure it all out. But when I did it finally started clicking.”

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