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Georgia native Nick Fitzgerald goes from unknown to one of SEC’s best

ATHENS, Ga. – Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald isn’t from the state of Mississippi. He isn’t from neighboring states Louisiana, Tennessee or Alabama, either, where many others on the Bulldogs roster originate.

No, Fitzgerald is from the Georgia, the school he will play this Saturday on the road as perhaps the SEC’s best quarterback. But when he first left the state as a high school prospect from Richmond Hill, Georgia, he was far less known.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was one such individual who wasn’t too familiar with Fitzgerald, a redshirt junior who was considered just a three-star prospect in the 2014 recruiting cycle.

“I didn’t know much about Nick,” Smart said. “He was kind of under the radar. Just goes again to show what Dan has been able to do with quarterbacks. He saw something in the kid. He’s unbelievably competitive, physical, big. I mean, he did it with Dak Prescott. Dak was not a highly recruited guy. A guy with good size, dimensions, has the ability to throw the ball, but can run.”

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen even joked about having to search hard for Fitzgerald during the recruiting process. Mullen said after beating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl last year that he needed to beat out FCS program Chattanooga for Fitzgerald’s commitment, even though the school never offered him. (Middle Tennessee was his only other offer.)

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“He played in a system that didn’t really show off some of his skill set,” said Smart, who was still the defensive coordinator at Alabama during Fitzgerald’s recruiting process. “When you take a guy that’s running option, those kind of things in high school, sometimes you take that with the idea that this guy is going to grow into something. I’ve seen quarterbacks like that turn into great tight ends. That wasn’t the case with him. Dan took him and developed him and worked really hard with him.

“He’s got a lot of family members. He’s kin to Charles Pledger, who played here with me. He’s been telling me about the guy ever since he got over there. He’s done nothing, but get better every time.”

Mullen’s gamble with Fitzgerald seems to have paid off. After taking over for the departed Prescott last season, Fitzgerald threw for 2,423 yards, ran for 1,375 and was responsible for 37 total touchdowns (21 passing, 16 rushing). So far through three games this fall, Fitzgerald already has thrown for 543 yards and rushed for 240 with 12 total touchdowns (seven passing, five rushing).

Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed will be among those tasked with trying to bring down Fitzgerald, who is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, down Saturday.

“He’s a big guy,” Reed said. “Watching on film, he wants to win. He doesn’t slide at all. He’ll score, and that’s the biggest thing that makes him tough to bring down.”

Fitzgerald is different than most quarterbacks at his size because he is willing to take off and run.

“I think it’s the new age quarterback,” Reed said. “I think that’s what quarterbacks are coming to. You’ve got to be QB 2.0. You’ve got to use your feet and run the ball. And so it’s a different thing, and it puts a lot of stress on the defense. Defense has to adapt to that. I think we’ll be able to do that.”

Fitzgerald and Mississippi State are riding a wave of confidence on their way to their meeting against Georgia after beating LSU 37-7 last week.

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(You can follow Dan Mathews on Twitter @DanMathewsATL)

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