There are 129 teams in the FBS division of college football. With this many teams spread across the country, sometimes great players can go unnoticed by a large number of fans. Nick Fitzgerald is one of those players. The starting quarterback for Mississippi State is putting up big numbers for the second season in a row. With a SEC-West showdown with the Texas A&M Aggies looming, let’s take a look at one of the best players you don’t hear about.
Under the Radar
To say Fitzgerald had a quiet recruitment would be a massive understatement. His only scholarship offer other than the Bulldogs was from Middle Tennessee State. He was not looked at by the home state Georgia Bulldogs, but Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen saw something in him. The gamble has paid off so far, as Fitzgerald is in his second year starting in the SEC.
“I don’t have to rely on everybody else’s recruiting evaluation,” Mullen told ESPN. “I can rely on mine and probably get away with it.”
The Right Guidance
If there was a perfect coach to discover and develop Fitzgerald, it is Mullen. The Bulldog head coach has an impressive track record with quarterbacks. Mullen has had five quarterbacks drafted in the NFL, and coached Alex Smith and Tim Tebow during their Heisman contending seasons. His most recent success was Dak Prescott, who left Mississippi State as a school legend and was an immediate success for the Dallas Cowboys. Now he has Fitzgerald, an unheralded recruit whom challenged school and SEC records in his first season starting.
Nick Fitzgerald; Replacing a Campus Legend
Dak Prescott left Starkville, MS as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and completions. He is third in career rushing yards and first in touchdowns with 41. Prescott is looked at as the best player in school history. In just a season and a half, Fitzgerald is already chasing down some of his records. He is currently sixth in career rushing yards and second in touchdowns. Fitzgerald had the third best single season rushing total for a quarterback in SEC history. His 1375 yards in 2016 are just behind the totals of former Heisman winners Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton.
No one knew what to expect after Prescott graduated, except that the expectation was for a major drop off. Fitzgerald proved those expectations wrong as soon as his number was called. In his first start, against the South Carolina Gamecocks, he threw for 178 yards and two scores, while rushing for 195. While no one will forget what Prescott did as a Bulldog, “Nicky Fitz,” as his teammates call him, soon put fans in Starkville at ease about Prescott’s departure for the NFL.
Fitzgerald is his most dangerous when he can build a head of steam and barrel over defenders. That does not mean he is one dimensional. He has great vision in the open field, and his long strides make him faster than it appears at first. In 19 career starts, he has ten 100 yard rushing games. This includes 258 yards in an Egg Bowl victory over rival Ole Miss. Quickest way to become a hero in Starkville, run all over the Rebels. The junior from Richmond Hill, GA has three career 300 yard passing games, all coming last year.
His passing numbers have dropped a bit this season, as his completion percentage is at 57%, and he averages just 168 yards per game. Some of this is the result of bad games against elite defenses from Georgia and Auburn. Not coincidentally those are the Bulldogs only two losses this season. He has been steady in every other contest, averaging 189 yards on 63% completions in their five wins. The ground game is still his forte, with right around 80 yards per game in 2017. As he continues to develop as a passer, his rushing ability will only get better.
Striving For Excellence
Fitzgerald is trying to live up to the shadow of the man he replaced. Through one and a half season he has done just that. His individual stats are right up there with anyone who has played in Starkville. He has twice been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Now he is striving for the same team success that Prescott found. In 2014 the Bulldogs had just the third 10 win season in school history, and got a birth in the Orange Bowl. This season Mississippi State sits at 5-2, and has a chance for another good year. They made a bowl last season despite being 5-7, so getting his team to a winning record is paramount this year.
Next up is a trip to College Station, TX to face the Aggies. Both teams enter this contest at 5-2, and a win will be crucial to each. Fitzgerald had one of his best overall games in this match-up a year ago. He accounted for 391 total yards and 4 touchdowns in a 35-28 win in Starkville. If he can come close to that performance again his team should have a chance to get a victory. If he keeps piling up numbers, his name will become more commonly known. Stats can get you noticed, but winning makes certain. Fitzgerald has been piling up stats, now he is looking to cement a winning tradition for himself and his team.