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  • After a record-setting finish to his first season as Mississippi State's starter, the sky seems to be the limit for Nick Fitzgerald. How many other SEC schools now wish they pushed harder for an unheralded high school triple-option quarterback recruit?
By Andy Staples
July 10, 2017

STARKVILLE, Miss. — After Nick Fitzgerald humiliated the Ole Miss defense with 258 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and three passing touchdowns in a 55–20 Egg Bowl win in Oxford last November, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen chomped a cigar and fielded questions about his then-sophomore quarterback. Chief among them: Exactly which schools did the Bulldogs beat out to land Fitzgerald?

Mullen’s memory isn’t entirely perfect. The Bulldogs also bested Middle Tennessee. 

Why didn’t every FBS coach—in an age when dual-threat quarterbacks are coveted above all others—want a 6' 5", 230-pound quarterback with a huge arm and receiver speed? They lacked faith. “They can see he’s got a big arm, but he’s still raw as a passer. A lot of guys say ‘I don’t know if I want to take a chance on him,’” said Fitzgerald’s father, Derrick, who notes that coaches from 32 Division I schools came to watch Nick during spring practice at Richmond Hill (Ga.) High in 2013. “A lot of assistant coaches would say, ‘He looks good, but I’m not going to fall on my sword and say we’ve got to have him.’”

Now, when Fitzgerald might have the highest ceiling of any quarterback in an SEC that suddenly seems stocked with quality at the position, it’s easy to poke fun at the schools that missed on him. Georgia had to go all the way to Washington to get Jacob Eason when Fitzgerald was sitting right there in the Savannah suburbs. Florida, an easy drive from Fitzgerald’s home, would love to have a quarterback that could make its offense as good as its defense has been. South Carolina has Jake Bentley now, but the Gamecocks might have had a more versatile offense earlier with Fitzgerald—who started college two years earlier than Bentley—running it. And if Oregon, one of Fitzgerald’s dream schools, had called earlier? Mark Helfrich might still have a job.

But four years ago, a coach had to look hard at Fitzgerald and then extrapolate liberally to see what seems obvious now. When all those coaches visited Richmond Hill’s spring practice, Fitzgerald was entering his first season as a full-time starter. He had starred as a receiver, safety and kick returner, but future Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen had taken most of the snaps. Complicating matters further, Richmond Hill ran the triple option. So even a senior season of film wouldn’t yield much evidence of whether Fitzgerald could throw effectively.

Still, there was some video floating around that offered glimpses of what Fitzgerald might become. In early ’13, Niel Stopczynski noticed Fitzgerald’s name near the bottom of a list of the top 300 prospects in Georgia. Stopczynski, Mississippi State’s assistant recruiting coordinator, was intrigued because of Fitzgerald’s size. So he clicked on a video clip. The clip showed Fitzgerald as a sophomore rolling, flipping his hips and firing a pass to a receiver who caught it in stride 55–60 yards down the field. “That got their attention,” Derrick Fitzgerald said. Stopczynski passed along Fitzgerald’s information and video to Bulldogs offensive line coach John Hevesy, who recruits south Georgia. Hevesy got in touch and asked if Fitzgerald might be open to an unofficial visit during the Bulldogs’ spring practice.

Fitzgerald, who kept a wish list of schools and crossed out a team every time a quarterback in the class of ’14 committed, was thrilled to get a chance to meet the coaches at one of the schools on his list. He spent a day on campus, including an hour with Mullen. “Maybe we’ll give you a shot at quarterback, but if that doesn’t work out, you’re going to be a tight end or a wide receiver,” Fitzgerald remembered college coaches telling him. “There was never really a school that was like ‘We want you as a quarterback. I’m going to develop you as a quarterback. That’s the position you’re going to play.’ Until I talked to Coach Mullen.” At the time, Bulldogs coaches were trying to decide who the starting quarterback would be for the ’13 season. They didn’t yet realize that the redshirt sophomore who would ultimately win the job also would grow into the best player in the history of the program.

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Mullen was interested, but he wanted to see Fitzgerald throw in Mississippi State’s camp a few months later. So that summer, the Fitzgerald family saved on gas and visited the three schools most interested in Nick as a quarterback. (Several other schools, including Georgia and Appalachian State, expressed keen interest in him as a tight end/receiver hybrid.) Fitzgerald visited Mississippi State on Friday, Ole Miss on Saturday and Middle Tennessee on Sunday. He got an offer from the Bulldogs on Saturday and from the Blue Raiders on Monday. Fitzgerald, who knew Mississippi State was considering other quarterbacks at the time, quickly committed to the first—and only—school on his wish list to make an offer. He then worked to graduate high school early and reported to Starkville in time to practice with the Bulldogs ahead of their Liberty Bowl matchup against Rice to close the 2013 season.

Then Fitzgerald waited. Every once in a while over the next two years, Mullen would make Fitzgerald live at practice so he would remember how it felt to get tackled. “They never let me forget,” Fitzgerald cracked.

Fitzgerald didn’t mind the wait, because he knew he’d need time to develop given his background. “I threw 76 passes my senior year of high school,” Fitzgerald said. “When I got here, that was the main thing on my mind. I have to develop myself as a passer. I have to get better.”

Fortunately for Fitzgerald, he had the ideal mentor. Dak Prescott had laid claim to the starting job in 2013, and he was about to take Mississippi State to heights few outside the program believed possible. Fitzgerald marveled as teammates flocked to Prescott and Prescott inspired them to victories. The Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the nation in October ’14 and wound up playing in the Orange Bowl. In ’15, Prescott was even better but lacked the supporting cast to repeat the previous year’s success. Prescott found a superior supporting cast last year when he joined the Cowboys, and he ended the season as the clear franchise QB.

While Prescott wowed his new teammates in Dallas, Fitzgerald dealt with the pressure of being the guy after the guy. “It’s tough to be the guy who comes after Dak Prescott,” Fitzgerald said. “He was Mississippi State football. He was the guy who changed the mindset of the program. It was built on hard work. It was built on relentless effort. He came in and just embodied that.” After watching Prescott for so long, Fitzgerald knew the differences between the two. “Dak was a natural born leader,” Fitzgerald said. “People were just drawn to him. He just had that personality. That’s something I had to work on.”

How has Fitzgerald worked on his leadership? He tried to learn more about his teammates—regardless of position or age. If his offensive line has to do up-downs as a penalty for poor play at practice, Fitzgerald joins them. “They know that I’m going to be there for them,” he said. “I’m going to do the punishment with them. That’s how you build that bond with them. It has to be rock solid.” But the Bulldogs are most likely to follow Fitzgerald because on the field, he has a chance to be as special as Prescott if he keeps maturing as a passer.

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The constant comparisons to Prescott probably wear on Fitzgerald, but he might like this one. Consider these two stat lines.

Quarterback A: 59.9% completion rate, 6.8 yards per attempt, 1,231 yards passing, seven passing TDs, 6.3 yards per carry, seven rushing TDs.

Quarterback B: 50% completion rate, 7.3 yards per attempt, 1,425 passing yards, 13 passing TDs, 8.2 yards per carry, 14 rushing TDs.

Quarterback A is Prescott in the final seven games of his redshirt sophomore season in ’13. (The list starts earlier for Prescott because he missed November games against Arkansas and Alabama with an injury.) Quarterback B is Fitzgerald in his final seven games last season. By the end of his first season as the starter, he already had more 300-yard passing/100-yard rushing games (three) than any quarterback in Mississippi State history. He also had broken the SEC single-season record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (eight). The only SEC quarterbacks who have rushed for more yards than Fitzgerald did last year (1,375) were Cam Newton in ’10 and Johnny Manziel in ’12. Each of those two won that season’s Heisman Trophy.

The Bulldogs started 3–5 in ’16 but finished strong after discovering an identity on offense. That identity is to let Fitzgerald, already well-versed in making option reads after spending middle and high school in the triple option, decimate defenses with his legs and go to the air if the opponent overcompensates. This worked especially well in a November win against Texas A&M, which came in 7–1 but was never the same afterward. In Mississippi State’s 35–28 win, Fitzgerald completed 18 of 31 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and ran 20 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns. “Everyone finally realized that ‘I only have to do my one-eleventh. I only have to do my job,’” Fitzgerald said of the offensive renaissance. “And if I can do my job right, nothing crazy has to happen. Nothing spectacular has to happen. We can move the ball down the field.”

Fitzgerald knows he has to boost his passing accuracy because he knows there will be defenses who can eliminate him as a runner. Alabama did that last year, holding him to 36 yards on nine non-sack carries. (The Crimson Tide also sacked Fitzgerald twice for a loss of 21 yards.) To have a chance against the best teams on Mississippi State’s schedule, Fitzgerald will have to make defenses respect his arm.

Still, Mullen is confident Fitzgerald can develop as a thrower. Mullen just lived through a similar situation. “You’re only going to be so prepared in year one as a starter,” Mullen said. “You didn’t even know what you were preparing for. Now you get into year two, and you know what you’re preparing for. I go back to Dak. He went from competing to being the guy for the first time to coming into the next year.”

In that case, “next year” featured a trip to the top of the polls. Can Fitzgerald work the same kind of magic in his second year as the starter? He knows everything he does will be compared to Prescott, but in this case, that’s a compliment Fitzgerald may have the skills to repay.

A random ranking

Moana hit Netflix recently, and as the father of a six-year-old girl that means I’m hearing “How Far I’ll Go” approximately 74 times a day. It occurred to me that I’ve never ranked the best songs from Disney’s animated films. So let’s fix that. (Spoiler alert: The Lion King laps the field in terms of total quality.)

1. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, The Lion King
2. ”Beauty and the Beast (Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion version)”, Beauty and the Beast
3. “When You Wish Upon a Star”, Pinocchio
4. ”Let It Go (Idina Menzel version)”, Frozen
5. “The Circle of Life”, The Lion King
6. “A Whole New World (Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle version)”, Aladdin
7. “Under The Sea”, The Little Mermaid
8. “Kiss The Girl”, The Little Mermaid
9. “Bare Necessities”, The Jungle Book
10. “How Far I’ll Go (Auli'i Cravalho version)”, Moana
11. “Hakuna Matata”, The Lion King
12. “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, Cinderella
13. “Be Our Guest”, Beauty and the Beast
14. “Whistle While You Work, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
15. “Prince Ali”, Aladdin
15. “Go The Distance”, Hercules
16. “I See The Light”, Tangled
17. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, The Lion King
18. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman”, Frozen
19. “What’s This?”, The Nightmare Before Christmas
20. “Down In New Orleans”, The Princess and the Frog
21. “Colors of the Wind”, Pocahontas
22. “Cruella de Vil”, 101 Dalmations
23. “Belle”, Beauty And The Beast
24. “You’re Welcome”, Moana
25. “Fixer Upper”, Frozen

Three And Out

1. Georgia coach Kirby Smart has a drill he calls “Millennial Oklahoma” that looks like a dandy way to teach perimeter blocking—and getting off blocks on the perimeter—and open-field tackling. Smart explains it here at a coaching clinic. (Warning: Smart says a few dirty words. Football coaches cuss. Get over it.)

2. Last week, I poked fun at the Texas-Corona partnership by offering much better pairings of college football teams and booze brands. Tulane one-upped me and partnered with NOLA Brewing Co. to create its own craft beer.

3. We knew North Carolina would wear Jumpman-branded football uniforms this season after alum Michael Jordan made his “the ceiling is the roof” announcement this past winter. But this week, we got our first look at the Js the Tar Heels will rock on the field.

What’s eating Andy?

SEC Media Days begins Monday in Hoover, Ala. I’ll be there alongside SI’s Bruce Feldman for four days, but we’re a little strapped for questions since no one overslept at the Manning Passing Academy this past weekend.

What’s Andy eating?

Most of my career has been spent working as far away from my bosses as humanly possible. I’ve never been based out of the home office of any publication I’ve written for, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Office drama rarely reaches me, and I never have to worry whether there are enough slices of birthday cake for every person in every cubicle. The only downside? This arrangement has harmed my reputation as a human Yelp.

When people learn my first full-time job was with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, they immediately ask where they should eat in Chattanooga. I never know what to tell them. The paper hired me in September 2000 to cover Tennessee sports. This hire came on the Monday of the week the Volunteers played Florida. Needless to say, I had to get straight to Knoxville. There was no time for leisurely lunches.

I stayed in Knoxville for the next two years, passing through Chattanooga when I drove south but rarely stopping. My inability to recommend even one place bothered me, so during a recent drive through the South I decided to remedy the situation.

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Beast + Barrel sits in a hip neighborhood just across the Tennessee River from downtown. On a pretty day, office workers can take a beautiful walk across a greenway that connects each side of the river. Hopefully, those office workers don’t have much planned for the afternoon. They’re about to eat a sandwich that will make them forget everything in their inbox.

The Beast + Barrel menu features a two homages to classic dishes. One is called Roscoe’s, and it’s a chicken and waffle sandwich inspired by Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles. Beast + Barrel has embraced the recent trend of turning the separate components into one unified sandwich with waffles serving as the bread. As delightful as that sounds, that’s not why you’re going. You want The Big Katz.

Beast + Barrel bills itself as a “gastro smokehouse,” so I figured I needed to try a meat that required more care than fried chicken. The 36-hour marinated pastrami fits the bill. The sandwich is named after Katz’s Delicatessen in New York’s Lower East Side, and Katz’s makes the best pastrami I’ve ever eaten. After tasting the thick, smoked slices stuffed between toasted rye at Beast + Barrel, I may have to rethink that ranking.

Andy Staples

The meat is perfect—juicy, salty and tender—and needs no help, but the fresh rye gives the sandwich a sturdy backbone and the homemade kraut offers just enough tang and crunch. I did make one modification, though. I ordered my sandwich without Thousand Island dressing, and you should, too. Thousand Island is mayonnaise’s slightly more popular cousin. But behind its many nicknames—which usually contain the words “secret” or “sauce”—Thousand Island is yet another condiment that tastes like despair feels. It only serves to mask the taste of whatever it touches, and it should never be used by anyone. Instead, as your server for a cup of Beast + Barrel’s own stone-ground mustard. Its piquant jolt balances out the massive dose of savory from those thick slabs of pastrami.

Afterward, you’re going to want a nap. This is especially true if you paired your sandwich with the parmesan-and-garlic dusted fries. Fight the urge. Stroll back across that bridge and let that sandwich settle. You may need to burn some calories, because you’re probably going to want to return for dinner.

Meanwhile, those who peruse my résumé and ask for a Chattanooga recommendation will now get an answer that I know will make them happy.

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