By JOEL COLEMAN
Let the battle begin.
For months, Mississippi State has prepared for life without former quarterback Dak Prescott. After Tuesday and the start of training camp, the four-way contest to replace the most illustrious player in program history is officially underway.
No one is more anxious to know who that man will ultimately be than eighth-year MSU head coach Dan Mullen.
“I haven’t seen any of them do anything since spring throwing the ball,” Mullen said on Monday. “I think it is going to be something. I don’t think there will be anybody that is happier knowing who the quarterback is going to be than me.”
This is new territory for Mullen. He’s overseen quarterback battles before.Yet having four realistic candidates in the forms of junior Damian Williams, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley as well as redshirt freshman Nick Tiano, is indeed unique for the veteran leader of the Bulldogs.
“I’ve had three, but I’m trying to think if I’ve had four,” Mullen said. “I’ve had two and that is very nerve-racking. They don’t just wear the special jersey, but they have bubble around them when they go out.
“(Quarterbacks coach) Brian Johnson has done a great job and I let him take control of making sure we’re doing equal evaluations on everybody. He spends a lot of time during pre-practice making sure we’re doing equal evaluations on everybody.”
In Tuesday’s first practice, Fitzgerald took the initial first-team snaps of camp. Fitzgerald said he earned that honor by defeating his teammates in a game of rock, paper, scissors. Throughout camp, Mullen says each player will get first-team, second-team and third-team reps.
Mullen states that his goal is to get each quarterback 25 percent of the repetitions until a signal caller is chosen, further signifying he’s giving an equal chance to all four players. That started in the spring.
“The one thing I did after spring ball is sat down with each of the four quarterbacks and asked the four, ‘Do you think that anyone hands down earned the starting quarterback job?’ All of them said no. I asked them, ‘Do you think you were given a fair opportunity to win the quarterback battle?’ They all said yes. I don’t know if they were trying to appease me with their answers, but those were closed door, one-on-one meetings and I said, ‘Hey, this is your chance to explain to me how I’m going to change things going forward into fall camp to give you more of an opportunity.’ They all felt like they had a great, equal opportunity.”
So what will determine who comes out on top in the fight to be the starter? Mullen says it all comes down to consistency.
“I think they already know that if they make a great play it doesn’t mean they have won the job, and if they make a bad play that doesn’t mean that they lost the job,” Mullen said. “It means over the course of training camp that they have to consistently perform. Hopefully it defines who our guy is. There were times during spring ball that I thought, ‘This guy is starting to separate and define himself.’ The next day someone else would have a great day and I thought, ‘Well, it’s not as defined as I thought it was.’ They all agree with that assessment of what happened. I’m excited to see who has put the work in to be consistent.”
The only certainty in this quarterback race is that only one guy can come out on top. That means three young men will then be faced with a choice to make – they can either stick around MSU and serve as a backup or look for an opportunity to play at another institution.
Mullen made clear that he wouldn’t be surprised at all if one of his quarterbacks that fails to earn the job ends up transferring. The only player that doesn’t apply to, Mullen said, is Tiano as he continues to learn and could possibly be the starter next year regardless of how this year’s battle turns out.
“We’ve had very little attrition within our program since I’ve been here, but I think (quarterback) is one of those positions where it’s difficult,” Mullen said. “It’s difficult because there is only one quarterback. If you’re not starting at receiver, that means you play 30 plays a game instead of 40 plays a game. There’s really not that big of a difference. There’s a lot of positions where the starter, when we’re in the locker room getting dressed, they put his picture on the jumbotron. That’s about the difference in the first or second string guys in a lot of positions. The quarterback is a unique position though.”
Mullen says he completely understands if any of his guys ultimately decides to go elsewhere to have a better chance to get on the field. That competitive spirit is what got them to this point to begin with.
“Guys want to play,” Mullen said. “It’s a very different understanding at the quarterback position than other positions. It wouldn’t surprise me if (a transfer) happened and, to be honest with you, I’d be supportive of helping those guys any way that I could because they just want to be in a position to go and play.”