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VOL. 133 | NO. 144 | Friday, July 20, 2018

After the Injury

MSU QB Nick Fitzgerald will try to lift his team to a special season

By Don Wade

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ATLANTA – Early in last season’s Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald made a short run to his left, got hit, and crumpled to the Scott Field turf. His right ankle had been dislocated and his foot had been spun around as though on a swivel.

It was a make-you-wince injury just seeing it on TV. If you were a teammate of Fitzgerald’s, it was far worse.

“Truly heartbreaking,” said senior safety Mark McLaurin.

Candace McAlpin, left, takes a photograph of her daughter, Caroline, 11, center and Mississippi State football quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, during the annual Central Mississippi Summer Extravaganza in Pearl, Miss., Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Eight months later, Fitzgerald joined McLaurin and defensive lineman Gerri Green at SEC Media Days. The expectation is that Fitzgerald, a senior who leads all returning FBS quarterbacks in career rushing touchdowns (33), 100-yard rushing games (14), and average yards per carry (6.5), will be under center for the season’s start and ready to throw more and, yes, run just a little less.

Although Fitzgerald has his eyes looking to the season ahead, he also says if he had made the right read on that fateful play last November he wouldn’t have been injured: “Probably should have handed the ball off in the first place.”

Fitzgerald made many more dangerous runs during the season without incident. He rushed for more than 900 yards and passed for more than 1,700 yards, one of only three FBS quarterbacks to put up those numbers.

No doubt, he’s made his legend with his legs and he enters the 2018 season with 2,486 career rushing yards, or just 461 yards shy of Tim Tebow’s SEC record for a quarterback.

But with former coach Dan Mullen now running things at Florida and first-year coach Joe Moorhead in charge, expect to see the ball in the air more often. Fitzgerald passed 30 or more times in a game just twice in 2017. Despite the judicious number of pass attempts, he completed only 55.6 percent of his throws. Moorhead wants to see his completion percentage closer to 65 percent.

By all accounts, Fitzgerald’s rehab has been aggressive. Still, one scout told Athlon Sports: “That was a brutal injury. You’re not just bouncing back from something like that. But that’s one tough son of a gun. If anyone can do it, he will.”

Consider, too, that Fitzgerald was never projected to be where he is now – chasing Tebow’s SEC rushing record and very much on the radar of NFL teams. He was a two-star recruit coming out of Richmond Hill High School in Georgia. Mullen extended one of only two scholarship offers.

Mississippi State football player Kody Schexnayder draws notches on his hand as he counts the number of times a fan has their photograph taken with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, during the annual Central Mississippi Summer Extravaganza. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“I was truly raw when I came in,” Fitzgerald said. “I wasn’t polished in anything except being able to run the ball. When I committed, there were a lot of people in the fan base who didn’t think I should’ve been on the team.”

Mullen’s reputation is that he’s something of a quarterback whisperer, albeit while yelling.

“One of the big things is he teaches you how to be a good decision-maker, how to process things,” said Fitzgerald. “The faster you can process information, the better quarterback you’re going to be.”

More recently, new passing game coordinator and quarterback coach Andrew Breiner has made tweaks in Fitzgerald’s footwork and throwing motion. The Bulldogs are coming off a 9-4 season and return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. Even with a new coaching staff, that’s the kind of continuity and experience that can be the setup for a special season – especially if the quarterback can be a game-changer.

If MSU is to challenge in the SEC West, it will mean going through Alabama and Auburn. And that probably means dramatically improving their ranking as the 41st scoring offense in the country. Last year, wideout Jesse Jackson led the Bulldogs with a modest 27 catches for 276 yards. Now a senior, he might not even start this season as a senior if freshmen and a junior college transfer show more potential.

That, however, won’t change the fact Moorhead wants the offense in Starkville to operate in a higher gear.

“See a lot more deep shots down the field this year,” Fitzgerald predicted.

Of course, this also hinges on Fitzgerald’s choices in the moment. When does he tuck and run? When does he wait and try to make the big play with his arm?

“There are times I’ve taken off too early,” he said. “There are times I’ve held the ball too long. It’s really just trying to find the times to take off, when you absolutely have to, to get a first down. But if you can stay in the pocket and stand tall, and get past your second and third reads, and get back to your fourth or your check-downs instead of running the ball, that’s going to make you a better quarterback and really help the team.

“I don’t think it’s natural for anyone to stand there with a 300-pound D-linemen running at you while you’re trying to throw the ball,” he added. “You have to take those shots to deliver the ball. With me being such a fast guy, it’s a little bit harder for me to want to stay in the pocket.”

One thing is certain: Moorhead expects big things from his quarterback. Right after he got the job, he sent Fitzgerald a text with this instruction: “I want you to clear a spot on your mantel for the Heisman Trophy.”

Fitzgerald smiles as he tells that story, knowing how it must sound.

“I didn’t know how to take it at first, but once I met him I saw that it was real,” the quarterback said. “I’m not saying that’s where I’ll be, but I like that he had that confidence.”

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