By JOEL COLEMAN
With less than three weeks to go before Mississippi State opens its season, head coach Dan Mullen is one step closer to finding his starting quarterback. Since Elijah Staley announced his plans to transfer on Friday, only Damian Williams, Nick Fitzgerald and Nick Tiano remain to vie for the job.
So just how much longer will it be before Mullen narrows the field even more?
“We’re going to try to (divide reps evenly) all the way through next week’s scrimmage (on Friday),” Mullen said on Friday night. “Then, if it has defined itself, we’ll start (giving more reps to certain guys). Until it defines itself, we’re going to keep it the same.”
Staley’s departure automatically gives Williams, Fitzgerald and Tiano more time to prove themselves. Mullen has stated from the beginning of training camp that his goal was to give each of his four quarterbacks 25 percent of the reps. With the four-man race now down to three, each of the remaining players are left to divide the snaps only three ways.
“Each quarterback now has eight percent more throws so they’re going to be a little bit more tired,” Mullen said.
Through two full weeks of camp, Mississippi State appears to be going out of its way to give each of its potential quarterbacks an equal chance to be the starter. Staley apparently deemed himself out of the running. The big southpaw didn’t participate in MSU’s scrimmage on Thursday before confirming his intentions to transfer on Friday.
“I think he was getting a great opportunity here,” Mullen said. “I think in his decision, he thought, ‘I might not be ready right now and is that going to put me behind later on?’”
MSU granted Staley his release. He’s now free to go anywhere he chooses, including other Southeastern Conference schools. If Staley transfers to another NCAA institution, he will be forced to sit out a year due to NCAA rules, giving the current redshirt sophomore two more years to play.
“To be honest, this is the time for him to try to go get a fresh start somewhere,” Mullen said. “If you wait too long, sometimes you can’t get that fresh start (because of limited eligibility).”
Mullen wasn’t surprised by Staley’s decision to leave.
“Guys want to play,” Mullen said. “We met and talked about it. I appreciate how he handled everything. He handled everything really well. I don’t take that stuff very lightly. It was a very mature conversation about the future and where we’re at and where he’s at and what he feels is best. So we supported him in that decision.”
With Staley out of the picture, the quarterback battle rages on at MSU. Public opinion seems to deem Fitzgerald the current favorite after he spent last year as former quarterback Dak Prescott’s primary backup and displayed flashes of his playmaking ability by completing 11 of his 14 passes for 235 yards with three touchdowns. Fitzgerald also rushed 23 times for 127 yards and three scores.
The two men left to compete with Fitzgerald each boasts strengths of their own however. Williams is the lone man of the three to have ever started a game at MSU. He’s been with the program since 2013 and has more experience with Mullen’s offense than any of the candidates.
“Damian, he’s so smart,” Tiano said earlier this month. “He understands everything and it just clicks to him. He’s just really good mentally and fundamentally.”
Tiano, a redshirt freshman, might could be considered the underdog of the group. He’s the lone man that has never played in a game for the Bulldogs, yet his potential and maturity gives him as good of a shot as anyone. Mullen has even mentioned that, regardless of who is named the starting quarterback, Tiano will be in the running for the job next year.
“He’s not a typical redshirt freshman,” MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said of Tiano. “He’s really worked his tail off both in the weight room and in the film room in his offseason development and offseason study to put himself in the position to be where he is now.”
Johnson says MSU isn’t just giving Tiano an equal portion of the reps in training camp as a courtesy. Johnson deems Tiano a legit candidate for the position.
“We wouldn’t be giving him (an equal number) of the reps if we didn’t think he had a chance to help us,” Johnson said. “That would be counterproductive for us as a program and as a position group. He’s definitely in the mix of it.”
The clock is ticking on Mullen to figure out the quarterbacking situation. MSU opens against South Alabama on Sept. 3. Mullen has stated he hopes to have his starter figured out the week prior to the first game.
“I would love to have it narrowed down,” Mullen said a week ago. “I’d love to have it sorted by game week. It doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way, but I’d rather go into game week saying, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be the starter.’”