STARKVILLE, Miss. – Nick Fitzgerald struggled to fully explain how low he felt last September after Mississippi State lost its 2016 season opener 21-20 to South Alabama.
“I was upset. I was down. I was given the chance to show that I could play and I messed it up,” Fitzgerald says.
Just hours before that nightmare of a loss, Fitzgerald’s dream had finally come true. After two seasons of learning from the great Dak Prescott, one as a redshirt and one as a backup, Mississippi State finally was Nick Fitzgerald’s team.
The game did not go well. Coach Dan Mullen scripted the game (a decision he later regretted) to give Fitzgerald the first three possessions, with backup Damian Williams then coming in. Fitzgerald couldn’t move the team. Williams did and staked the Bulldogs to a 17-0 lead. But South Alabama stormed back to take a 21-20 lead.
Williams stayed in the game and at the end drove the Bulldogs into position to kick a winning 28-yard field goal. But the kick by Westin Graves clanked off the right upright, and life without Dak was off to a rocky start.
That night after the game, Fitzgerald still was dealing with the disappointment when he got a call from Mullen.
“Coach told me to not be upset and to not be down,” Fitzgerald says. “He said we would talk tomorrow (Sunday).”
On Sunday, Mullen informed Fitzgerald that he was Mississippi State’s starting quarterback and that he would remain in that position for the rest of the season.
“In one way, it lifted a tremendous load off my shoulders,” Fitzgerald says. “But in another way, coach put the team on my back and said he trusted me and expected me to be the leader.”
In the next game, against South Carolina, Fitzgerald ran for 195 yards and passed for 178 more in a 27-14 victory. Fitzgerald finished the season with 2,423 yards and 21 TDs passing and 1,375 yards and 16 TDs rushing. His 3,798 yards of total offense led the SEC.
While Mississippi State finished 6-7 – the Bulldogs won the St. Petersburg Bowl game after reaching the postseason because of their high APR scores – Fitzgerald established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the SEC as the 2017 season approaches.
“Nick is a big guy (6 feet 5, 230 pounds) with incredible athletic ability,” Mullen says. “He didn’t throw the ball much in high school (in Richmond Hill, Ga., near Savannah), but has come to work every day willing to learn. In many ways, he’s the most athletic quarterback we’ve had.”
That’s quite a statement from a coach who developed Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner, and Prescott, the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie in 2016.
Armed with a new four-year contract and with a quarterback who runs his offense to perfection, Mullen began his ninth spring practice last week with a chance to put Mississippi State back into the national spotlight in 2017. In 2014, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 for five weeks.
But a few things have to fall into place.
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