Who backs Dak? Sizing up the Mississippi State quarterbacks

By JOEL COLEMAN
sports@starkvilledailynews.com

Dak Prescott is an absolute superstar now. He’s been a Heisman Trophy contender, become one of the faces of college football and is almost certainly the most recognizable individual around Starkville. As such, life has changed for the Mississippi State quarterback.
“There’s a lot more pictures, a lot more autographs and a lot more awkward stares,” Prescott said. “A year ago, I could go in a store and get out with no problem.
“It’s just time consuming when I go out and I better be ready to smile.”
There was once a much simpler time for the Haughton, Louisiana native. In his early days as a Bulldog, Prescott was loaded with potential for sure, but not many foresaw what he would become.
Now preparing for his MSU swan song, Prescott can see how far he’s come. Having been in their cleats once before, what he also sees is a young crop of signal callers just beneath him on the depth chart that are on the cusp of making names for themselves as well.
“We’ve got some very good guys,” Prescott said of MSU’s backup quarterbacks. “I’ve said it before, I think they probably are better than I was at that age. I’m pushing them to make sure they are getting better each and every day. Nick (Fitzgerald), Damian (Williams), Elijah (Staley) and Nick Tiano are very smart. They’re picking up things fast. That’s a very good group and the future is going to be bright as well.”
Of the backup quarterbacks, Williams is the lone man with game experience at Mississippi State. Williams has played in 12 games during his MSU career, including a start in the 2013 Egg Bowl as Prescott and former Bulldog Tyler Russell dealt with injuries.
In his two years on campus, Williams has completed 37 of his 70 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He has also run for 175 yards and a score.
The experience of Williams would seem to make him the favorite to serve as Prescott’s primary backup in 2015, but it appears that might not be the case.
In an interview on Tuesday, Fitzgerald indicated Williams might redshirt this season, allowing him to preserve a year of eligibility. MSU head coach Dan Mullen wouldn’t definitively say what the plan for Williams is.
“There’s a 50 percent chance he will (redshirt) and a 50 percent chance he won’t,” Mullen said. “Obviously, there’s that opportunity there for him to do that, but it’s hard for us to say. I would’ve thought he would’ve redshirted for us his freshman year, but it didn’t happen that way for us. You never know how things are going to play out.”
Whether or not Williams is redshirted, the primary backup duties could fall on the shoulders of Fitzgerald. Although he’s still waiting to see his first game action as a Bulldog, Fitzgerald has been with the program since the day after he graduated high school as he joined MSU for practices prior to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in 2013.
Now having been through two springs and a redshirt year, Fitzgerald is itching to finally get his first real taste of big-time college football.
“I’ve definitely had a lot of reps (in practice),” Fitzgerald said. “I tried to put myself in a position to get as many reps as possible before anyone else came in from my class and that’s helped me out a lot.”
Besides beating other members of his signing class to campus and getting extra practice time, Fitzgerald has also reaped the benefits of Prescott’s tutelage just a little bit longer than anyone else.
“I watch him,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a great role model to watch. Everything he does is a lesson that you can learn – how he carries himself in interviews, how he carries himself on the field, off the field, and in public. Everyone seems to really like Dak and so that’s something I really want to be able to accomplish.”
In addition to Williams and Fitzgerald, there’s the wildcard of the MSU quarterbacking mix in Staley. The left-hander was limited in the spring after undergoing knee surgery for a torn patella tendon, but he’s been back on the practice fields this week and possesses all the physical skills to push his way up the depth chart.
Because of his knee injury though, which was suffered in practices leading up to the Capital One Orange Bowl last December, the Bulldogs plan to be careful with Staley.
“It’s good to see him out there,” Mullen said. “He is still not at full speed, but it’s good that he’s back doing things. He can do just about everything, he’s just not at full speed. We have to protect him a little bit. When you have some of those more significant injuries you really have to protect guys. Some of the guys who have injuries that can cause longer term issues, you’re going to be more careful with them.”
Beyond Prescott, Williams, Fitzgerald and Staley, there’s Tiano. The top quarterback out of his home state of Tennessee for the 2015 class, Tiano is another dual-threat under center, passing for 2,096 yards and rushing for 723 in his senior year of high school.
With MSU’s abundance at the position though, it appears Tiano will have plenty of time to simply progress as a quarterback in his first year on campus. Still, Mullen and the Bulldogs have seen firsthand in recent years how injuries and other factors can reshuffle plans.
With that in mind, Mullen said nothing is nailed down just yet in the battle to back up Prescott.
“It’s a ways right now,” Mullen said. “We have seen guys do different things. I thought Nick Fitzgerald had a really good spring. We have to see that translate and improve coming into fall camp. I’ve seen Damian (Williams) play in games before so he has that experience. Those two guys have the edge over (Staley and Tiano) right now just on experience alone. We’ll see as camp goes.
“I don’t think I have ever had five quarterbacks in camp before. The great thing with Dak and his experience, they are all going to get experience to go with the ones. We’ll pull Dak and on different days and let different guys go with the ones for certain drives to see how they do.”

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