By JOEL COLEMAN
OXFORD – When former Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott walked off the field for the final time as a Bulldog in the waning seconds of last year’s Belk Bowl, then-freshman backup signal caller Nick Fitzgerald gave Prescott an embrace before hitting the gridiron and taking Prescott’s place. In that moment, the torch was unofficially passed from Prescott to Fitzgerald. Nearly a full year later, it’s safe to say Fitzgerald has kept the flame burning.
Fitzgerald polished off his first regular season as MSU’s starter on Saturday by overseeing a 55-20 demolition of rival Ole Miss in the Battle of the Golden Egg. It was quite the 12-game regular season journey for Fitzgerald who went from getting pulled out of the season opener after just two series, to becoming the undisputed immediate future of Mississippi State football at the quarterback position.
“He has grown up so much,” MSU receiver Fred Ross said of Fitzgerald’s progression this year. “From that first game to the experience he got playing through the whole year, he has done such a great job.”
Fitzgerald started the season with the shadow of Prescott looming over him. In Prescott’s two-plus years as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback, he became the face of the program. He led the Bulldogs to the top of the national polls in 2014 and oversaw the greatest two-year stretch in MSU football history. Along the way, Prescott rewrote State’s record books.
When this season started, Prescott’s legacy was the standard Fitzgerald had to live up to. By Saturday night, Fitzgerald had taken a huge stride towards filling those shoes.
“To an extent, Dak Prescott really was Mississippi State football for a long time,” Fitzgerald said. “To be the guy that came in after him, obviously you knew everything you did was going to be compared to him. Every mistake or every triumph was going to be compared to what he did. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. Maybe it will, but who knows? He was a phenomenal player. For me to be compared to him, I must be doing something right.”
Fitzgerald has actually accomplished things this year that even Prescott can’t claim. Fitzgerald set MSU’s single-game rushing record on Saturday when he piled up 258 yards on the ground. That total gave Fitzgerald 1,243 total rushing yards this season, a mark that now stands as the third-most by a quarterback in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
Most of Fitzgerald’s damage this season has been done in the last half of the year. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen attributes that to Fitzgerald’s continued progression and development. It also didn’t hurt when Fitzgerald started to understand he didn’t have to be Prescott.
“I always told Nick, ‘Let’s just worry about who you are and we’re going to build around you and what you do well. Don’t worry about who you’re not’,” Mullen said. “I think all year, people worried about who he was not instead of who he was. You know, he’s a pretty darn good quarterback.”
Ross said it wasn’t a surprise to him that Fitzgerald might have struggled initially with replacing Prescott. In fact, Ross said that was a problem for the entire Mississippi State team.
“It may have (gotten to Fitzgerald) in the beginning of the season because I think everyone missed Dak at the beginning of the season,” Ross said. “He did a good job of managing that and doing what he could do, and now, he’s taken off this last month. The sky is the limit for that guy.”
Mullen now wants to see Fitzgerald take another step forward. According to Mullen, it’s the things that happen when no one is watching that will determine whether or not Fitzgerald can continue his ascension.
“We’re going to see,” Mullen said. “This is a huge challenge for (Fitzgerald) now. He’s had some success, but now he knows what to expect. If he’s going to be the guy, he has to go be the guy and act like it. The learning curve is done.
“I’m convinced he’s a great quarterback. I want to see his continued growth. People think the ‘it’ factor shows up on Saturdays (in the fall). The ‘it’ factor shows up in February. The ‘it’ factor shows up on a hot July afternoon. That’s when the ‘it’ factor really shows up for a lot of guys.”
Time will tell if Fitzgerald takes the necessary steps to become a better leader and improve. His 2016 season has provided strong indication that he is likely to keep making the adjustments he needs to make to keep bettering himself.
Statistically, Fitzgerald has already put together one of the best offensive seasons by any player ever in MSU history. Like his predecessor though, it doesn’t sound like Fitzgerald is going to get complacent.
“I obviously expected to come in and play really well,” Fitzgerald said. “At times I did that. At times, I didn’t. There have been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things to learn from. I’m ready to take all that into the offseason and keep it going.”