Mississippi State needs consistency from Fitzgerald in '17

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has already shown a knack for the spectacular.

Now the Bulldogs hope their emerging star can bring a little more consistency to the offense.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald was one of the breakout stars in the Southeastern Conference last season and is one of just three returning quarterbacks in the nation who had at least 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in 2016. One of the others: Louisville's Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson.

But among all of Fitzgerald's great runs and throws was a problem: Some of the routine plays weren't always very routine.

Fitzgerald completed just 54.3 percent of his passes last season, which is a number Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brett Elliott says has to improve. He'll get his first chance on Saturday when the Bulldogs host Charleston Southern.

''You've got to be 60 percent and that's the goal for us,'' Elliott said. ''We take a lot deep shots, we're play action and we're going to throw the ball over the top, so you're not going to be at that 70 percent clip. But 60 percent, for us, is my bare minimum.''

Elliott said that even a short pass completion for two or three yards makes the offense feel good and keeps everyone in a rhythm. Incompletions immediately stifle momentum.

Now that Fitzgerald isn't fighting for the starting job, he's been able to worry about simply becoming a better quarterback. He said his work with Elliott has been valuable during the offseason and training camp.

''We have a great relationship and have been working on some small things like tweaking with my throwing motion and a few mechanical things,'' Fitzgerald said.

-----

Other things to watch when the Bulldogs host the Buccaneers:

THE MULLEN ERA: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen enters his ninth season with the Bulldogs and has a 61-42 mark during his tenure. He's led the program to a bowl game in seven consecutive seasons and is now just 14 wins away from tying Jackie Sherrill's school record of 75 career wins.

TUCKER TAKES OVER AT CHARLESTON SOUTHERN: It'll be Mark Tucker's first game as the Charleston Southern head coach on Saturday. He was elevated to the top job after four seasons as the quarterbacks coach. The Buccaneers are trying to earn a bid to the FCS playoffs for a third consecutive season. They finished with a 7-4 record last year.

TRYING TO BREAK THROUGH AGAINST THE FBS: Charleston Southern is 0-18 all-time against teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Buccaneers did beat Appalachian State (2013) and Coastal Carolina (2016) during seasons where those programs were transitioning to the FBS level. Mississippi State is 8-0 against FCS teams during Mullen's tenure.

MSU DEFENSE LED BY LEWIS: Mississippi State hopes for another great year from linebacker Leo Lewis. The sophomore was a freshman All-American in 2016 and his 79 tackles led all freshmen in the SEC and was No. 7 among FBS schools.

HANDING IT TO WILLIAMS: Mississippi State returns junior running back Aeris Williams, who ran for 720 yards and four touchdowns last season. He was at his best in the final five games of 2016, averaging 102.8 yards rushing per game.

-----

More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.