Returning Starter Tops Short List of Camp Quarterbacks

No, it didn’t take long for Nick Fitzgerald to notice. “I was standing out there like, where did everyone go?”

The question is rhetorical of course. Fitzgerald knew very well when Mississippi State started spring practicing there would be a much-smaller and entirely-new collection of other quarterbacks with him. Still…

“Yeah, man. It’s definitely really different.”

Then again 2017 a definitely different deal for Fitzgerald himself. He stepped onto the practice field Thursday as the acknowledged, accepted, and yes acclaimed starting quarterback. Not just that, but a rising SEC star and in some circles tabbed the top returning quarterback in the conference.

In short: Fitzgerald is now The Guy.

Though he won’t come out and claim this is ‘his’ team for 2017. He doesn’t see the need now. “I think as the starting quarterback I guess it would kind of be your team.

“You have the respect and the trust from all the other players. In a way yes, but also in a way no. There are plenty other guys on this team that are leaders and are taking up leadership roles.”

True enough. At the same time, this is a Dan Mullen team. Meaning quarterbacks take the lead. Make that, the quarterback. Fitzgerald is It.

And compared to spring 2016 he’s practically alone. This camp’s quarterback roster consists of junior Fitzgerald; true freshman and early-enrollee Keytaon Thompson; and walk-on Logan Burnett. That’s it.

Flash back a year and Fitzgerald was in the literal middle of a four-quarterback competition. One he won of course, and as most ultimately expected. Mullen made the August call to go with a then-sophomore and start Fitzgerald on opening day. And the next week, next month, all season and all the way through.

There were the struggles and the questions. Yet sticking by the first choice was the best choice as November bore out. What Fitzgerald achieved in Oxford already ranks among the best Egg Bowl performances by a Bulldog of any position, any year.

Now all the ’16 contenders have left, transferred elsewhere. Hence no familiar names behind Fitzgerald.

This thin depth chart comes with some cost, or at least he thinks so. A year ago Mullen didn’t exactly make the four contenders open targets…but he did not mind if they took a hard thump or even went to the turf a few times.

This spring? Touch Fitzgerald, or for that matter Thompson, at risk of one’s scholarship. Or more.

Fitzgerald has oddly-mixed emotions on this score. “I mean I love playing football, I love running the ball, I love being physical and hitting and sometimes delivering some licks.

“But I also understand the necessity. It’s just three of us so it’d be tough if one of us went down.” And it would be brutal for Bulldog hopes if number-one was the one. Though, Fitzgerald said, the newest quarterback in camp is already off to a flying State start.

“Keytaon is a great guy. He’s worked really hard since he’s got here and he’s picked up on a lot of things that it’s really good to see.” All the more so because, knowing very well the risks of his position, Fitzgerald feels an urgency to get the kid ready ahead of schedule with his own coaching.

“Kind of just the normal stuff. Just help with protections, help with the plays kind of stuff. I think he ran this kind of thing in high school so it kind of clicked for him way faster than it did for me. Which is awesome for him, I’m glad. He’s just doing a phenomenal job. To be honest I was really, really surprised. And I’m really glad.”

At the same time Fitzgerald is glad to be top Dog on his own merits. Winning the internal competition in summer, then winning enough games to achieve unusual bowl eligibility, set the stage for bigger things in (remember) the whole second half of his college career still ahead.

But then where does this spring’s real competition come from? Inside Fitzgerald his own self.

“It’s definitely different. Being the guy that’s going to be the starter is more you have to push yourself to be the best you can be. And no one else is really pushing you like they were last year. It’s more just you working your own thing and tweaking your own stuff on your own.”

So. What is on Fitzgerald’s priority list at this stage? The normal stuff, as he said.

“Just work on my footwork in the pocket, and get my completion rating up. Not being so I guess jittery in the pocket.” Of course setting a pocket is the task of another offensive unit, as a line is re-aligned now. Though this gets a little complicated in spring as two expected starters are sidelined.

One of them, Deion Calhoun, is supposed to be Fitzgerald’s center. This absolutely vital tandem is much on MSU minds in spring since nothing happens without a clean exchange.

To that end Fitzgerald and all centers, when healthy, got together in January and February when possible and hiked, and hiked, and hiked, and...

“They were out there getting snaps every day, watching a lot of film, still working on their reads and their calls. They did a really good job today. A few bad snaps, but that’s OK. I had a few bad throws. We’ll work on it and they’re just going to keep improving, so we’ll see what happens.”

What happens will happen over a the course of a fragmented month’s work. Mullen has opted to have four practices before the spring break; then get back to it upon return with eight more practices around a pair of Saturday scrimmages. And, of course, the April 8 spring game.

Thus it’s back to work on the field for the Bulldogs. Fitzgerald is happy to be out there, too, and not just because it is his first spring as The Quarterback. He has another sound reason.

“I’ll definitely take practicing over workouts at 5:00 any day.”

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