By JOEL COLEMAN
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is halfway through his final season as a Bulldog. The day is fast approaching when MSU will hit the gridiron without the guy that for more than two years has served as a leader and face of the program.
When that time finally arrives, whether by graduation or injury, it’d be safe not to make any assumptions about who takes Prescott’s spot, despite backup Nick Fitzgerald seeing so much playing time so far this season.
“I think (Nick Fitzgerald) goes into the game right now as the backup,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “If something happened to Dak, it’d be a wide open deal. I think (Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley) are pretty even. (Fitzgerald) has an advantage since Elijah was hurt in the spring, so he’s got a couple more reps, but if we had to make a change at quarterback, I don’t know (if Fitzgerald having an advantage) would be the case.”
Fitzgerald has shined when given the opportunity to play this season. In three games, he’s completed 10 of his 11 pass attempts for 231 yards and three touchdowns. He has also run 15 times for 93 yards and three touchdowns.
Fitzgerald nearly got his first career start in last Saturday’s game against Troy. With Prescott battling a stomach virus, Fitzgerald ran MSU’s morning walkthrough session and was prepared to fill in.
Ultimately, Prescott started, but Fitzgerald received the most significant amount of playing time in his young career, passing for 141 yards and two touchdowns while also carrying the ball eight times for 29 yards and a score.
“Great plays from everyone else kind of helped me out,” Fitzgerald said of his performance. “I just kind of put the ball where it needed to be and receivers went up and made the plays. I had great support from my running backs and great timing from my line to allow me to find my guys downfield. It just all came together.”
Like Prescott, Staley was also sick on Saturday. Though Staley did get on the field briefly late in the contest, it’s unknown how the playing time might have been allotted if both Fitzgerald and Staley had been at 100 percent.
As things stood, with two quarterbacks under the weather, Mullen was concerned he might even be facing a situation where he’d have to play veteran backup Damian Williams, who is attempting to redshirt this season and preserve two more years of eligibility.
“The fact that I get the call Saturday morning that Elijah had been throwing up since 1 a.m. and Dak since 4 a.m., to me, I’m looking at Damian Williams thinking, ‘I know we have a plan in place, but you have to be ready,’” Mullen said.
Williams getting the chance to redshirt has much to do with the progression of both Fitzgerald and Staley. Staley has played in one less game than Fitzgerald so far, but in his brief opportunities is 3-of-5 passing for 51 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Staley has run three times for 18 yards.
Mullen has seen enough from Fitzgerald and Staley to feel comfortable not having to use Williams.
“At this point, especially how Fitzgerald and Elijah have come in and handled it, I think that gives the opportunity for (Williams to redshirt),” Mullen said. “You never know with injuries, but at this point you have to feel pretty comfortable if something happened to one of the three playing now. I think (Williams) would have liked to redshirt his first year here but injuries didn’t allow that to happen.”
With Williams in the background, Fitzgerald and Staley will continue to fill roles as Prescott’s backups for the remainder of this season. Beyond that, a quarterback competition will commence to become MSU’s next starter.
Fitzgerald and Staley would most likely be the favorites in that battle, though freshman Nick Tiano and Williams could also factor in.
For now though, Fitzgerald says he’s not concerned about next year.
“I just kind of go on about my business for this season right now,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ll let that stuff start in postseason workouts when this team is done and a new team starts. That’s when we’ll get into the competition phase.”
As the quarterback battle looms, is there any tension amongst the guys battling for the top spot? Not at all says Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.
“We all get along,” Johnson said. “Everybody is on the same page. I think everyone is going to want to play obviously, when it gets to that point, but it’s a very, very good football room and those guys all get along well. They are each confident in their own abilities and everyone else’s abilities. We haven’t had any issues. It’s a bunch of good guys.”
There may be talent all around amongst MSU’s quarterbacks, but in the end, only one player will get the first chance to take the reins from Prescott when the moment arrives. If you’re keeping score at home and think you have a good idea who it’s going to be, you might want to erase those thoughts.
Whenever it is that Prescott takes his final snap in maroon and white, Mullen says all those vying for the starting job will be on a level playing field.
“To me, the second No. 15 (Prescott) walks out the door, the whole slate is clean,” Mullen said. “Whatever you have done in the past no longer exists in my mind. Everything they have done in the past was done with a guy in front of them – a No. 15 guy who has been a leader of his team. That slate is going to get wiped clean come spring time, because now, somebody has to emerge not only as a good quarterback but as a leader of the program.”