By JOEL COLEMAN
With just four quarters remaining in the Mississippi State football career of quarterback Dak Prescott, the fight to replace the most decorated player in MSU history is on.
The likely candidates to fill Prescott’s shoes aren’t strangers. Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley stand as the frontrunners to lead the Bulldogs next season and beyond. Their paths to win the starting job are different, however as the battle heats up during preparations for the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Fitzgerald’s attention is solely on football. Staley is displaying his athleticism by balancing two sports. A basketball star in high school, Staley is trying his hand on the hardwood this season for MSU. Staley has excelled on the court before. In his junior year at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, Staley nearly averaged a double-double with 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Staley is still awaiting his first chance to produce for the MSU basketball team after joining the squad following Mississippi State’s Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss on the gridiron on Nov. 28. So far though, Staley has impressed head basketball coach Ben Howland.
“He has good skill level for someone who hasn’t played basketball in a while,” Howland said. “He has a good feel for the game. He obviously isn’t in basketball condition, so that’s something we will try and remedy to get him up to speed. He really helps us because he gives us another quality player out there to make our practices more competitive. He just has a lot to learn.”
When Staley finally gets on the basketball court in a game situation, MSU head football coach Dan Mullen will be rooting for him.
“Hopefully he’s helping,” Mullen said. “I heard he’s played a little bit here and there. So he’s helping there.”
Mullen and Howland are working together to plan Staley’s next few weeks. Staley traveled with the basketball team for MSU’s road game at Missouri-Kansas City on Saturday. He traded in his sneakers for cleats and pads on Sunday as he returned to football practice. As preparations for the Belk Bowl continue this week, the Bulldogs play a pair of basketball games. It remains to be seen how Staley will handle the days ahead, but it’s certain he’ll join the football team in North Carolina in a couple of weeks.
“When we get to the bowl site, I told Ben (Howland) ‘I need (Staley) in Charlotte,’ Mullen said. “The rest of the time, if you need him, you’re more in-season than we are at that point.”
With Staley away for the first two bowl practices, which began on Friday, Fitzgerald has seen plenty of action. He’s been working with the first-team offense and gaining more and more experience.
“The (quarterback) competition is reps,” Mullen said. “Those reps are always a big deal. The more reps you get the better and we’ve got a lot of young guys that need a lot of reps at the quarterback position.”
One of the more interested observers in the quarterback race is Prescott. He’s spending his last few weeks as a Bulldog mentoring MSU’s young signal callers, just as he’s done throughout his career.
The man that holds 38 school records says quarterbacking the Bulldogs is as much about dealing with adverse situations as it is performing at a high level. That’s one of the tips he’s passing on to Fitzgerald and Staley.
“It’s about leadership and the way they react around others and the way they react when they throw a bad pass or when they throw an interception,” Prescott said. “How do they respond? Do they get down or do they allow their teammates to see that things are getting to them? It’s just really their demeanor and their attitude around the players. I really enjoy seeing the difference in how they all react.”
If Prescott knows who has the advantage to be his successor, he’s not tipping his hand. Whether it’s Staley, Fitzgerald, or even emerging freshman Nick Tiano, Prescott is confident the quarterback position at MSU will be in good hands once he takes off the maroon and white for good.
“It’s exciting,” Prescott said. “They are all really talented. I’ve told them all that I think they are better than I was at their age. They have talent. They have size and they have speed so it will be a very exciting competition between the three.”