By JOEL COLEMAN
Prior to Saturday’s season-opening game against South Alabama, Mississippi State had a total of one career start among its stable of quarterbacks. It had been nearly three full years since that start took place back when then-true-freshman Damian Williams started in the 2013 Egg Bowl in the place of an injured Dak Prescott.
Three years later and now a redshirt junior, Williams is in contention to be the full-time starter for the Bulldogs. His primary competition for the role, redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, started and got the first crack at the position on Saturday, but before the afternoon was over Williams had arguably established himself as the favorite for the starting job, at least in the immediate future.
“We started Nick because he graded higher through everything (in practice),” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said after Saturday’s game. “When we went in, our plan was for each guy to get two series each just to see where we were at. Nick went in and missed a read, then had two dropped passes. With Damian, we scored twice so we just let him keep going at that point.”
In fact, MSU scored on each of the first four drives led by Williams. That contrasted with a pair of three-and-outs when Fitzgerald was at the helm.
Fitzgerald never saw the field again after his second series of work, finishing 0-for-3 through the air with 11 rushing yards.
Williams helped State build a 17-0 halftime lead. Though the Bulldogs went on to squander their advantage and suffer a shocking loss to the Jaguars, Williams ended the day completing 20 of his 28 pass attempts for 143 yards and a touchdown. He also led the team with 93 yards rushing.
“He played hard,” wide receiver Fred Ross said of Williams. “He ran the ball well. He made good reads. He threw the ball well. He did good as a quarterback.”
Williams didn’t play a perfect game by any stretch. MSU’s offense bogged down in the second half, scoring only three total points over the third and fourth quarters. Williams also failed to hit South Alabama with the deep pass as he averaged only just over five yards per attempt.
Mullen credited much of that to South Alabama’s defense.
“We just take what they give us,” Mullen said. “That’s what we always do. If they’re going to play way off, then we’re going to go underneath. If they’re going to play up, then we’ll go over the top. That’s more of a decision made by the defense than us.”
Williams is by no means assured of the full-time starting gig moving forward. Fitzgerald’s tools and abilities still have him firmly in the mix, even though he saw limited time against South Alabama.
“He wasn’t out there long, so it was kind of hard to get a feel for what he was doing.” Ross said of Fitzgerald.
Judging by Mullen’s words, Fitzgerald will still have another chance to prove himself in the future. That opportunity could come as soon as this Saturday when MSU hosts South Carolina at Davis Wade Stadium at 6 p.m. to begin Southeastern Conference play for the Bulldogs.
“Both (Williams and Fitzgerald) are going to get ready to go play and be ready to play in the future,” Mullen said. “Both guys worked hard, got reps and we’ll see how they do this week at practice.”