Can Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald Develop into a First Round Pick?

Sep 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen talks with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) during the fourth quarter against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Gillette Stadium. Mississippi State won 47-35. Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen talks with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) during the fourth quarter against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Gillette Stadium. Mississippi State won 47-35. Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is entering his redshirt-junior season in Starkville. After leading the SEC in all-purpose yardage, can he bolt for the NFL in 2018?

Nick Fitzgerald is one of the more dynamic signal callers across all of college football. Fitzgerald has the legs and the speed to burn defenses on the ground, but also has the arm to hurt secondaries over the top. While Dak Prescott is — without any doubt — the greatest player in the school’s history, it is obvious that Dan Mullen drools over what he can do with Fitz calling the shots in Starkville.

Although Mississippi State struggled to find their groove last season, Nick Fitzgerald shined. His lethal ability to break down defenses with his feet and his deep ball allowed him to become a headache for defensive coordinators all season long. Sure, Alabama was able to contain him, but the first year quarterback found ways to hurt just about everyone he played.

On the Ground

It is no secret that Nick Fitzgerald has been at his best when having the option to hurt defenses with his feet. Whether it is a run-pass option or a designed carry, Mississippi State’s signal caller excels on the ground.

How dangerous is he carrying the football? Historically dangerous.

Fitzgerald re-wrote the SEC record books with his EIGHT games of 100+ yards rushing and his 7.1 yards per carry average during his first season as the starter for the Bulldogs.

"Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald shattered SEC single-season records for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (8) and average yards per rush by a quarterback (7.1, minimum 175 carries). Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel previously held the quarterback mark averaging 7.01 per carry in 2012. Fitzgerald’s average was also a school record at any position, breaking the previous of 6.9 by J.T. “Blondy” Black in 1942."

Dan Mullen loves using the read-option in his offense, and he has the perfect quarterback to run the highly effective play. Fitzgerald is able to draw the defense in by selling the fake. His impressive handle with the football forces the defensive end or blitzer to commit to either him or to the running back in the backfield, typically Aeris Williams.

By the time the defender chooses his move, Fitzgerald has the intelligence and the field vision to either give it or to take off for a huge gain. South Carolina witnessed that one mistake is critical when defending Fitzgerald on this particular play, as he took the carry for a seventy yard gain.

In this next clip, Mississippi State runs a variation of the read option — the Inverted Veer. The goal is still the same, though: force the defense to commit. The result? Bulldogs ball inside the one.

Fitz, per Sports Reference, eclipsed 130 yards with his feet five different times during his 2016 campaign: 195 in week two vs South Carolina, 182 in Mississippi State’s upset over then 4th-ranked Texas A&M in week ten, 131 two weeks later against Arkansas, 258 yards in an Egg Bowl beatdown in Oxford, and he ran for 132 in the Bulldogs’ bowl game in December. The quarterback’s 1,375 total rushing yards last season ranks third in SEC history — behind only some guys named Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel — and is the most by a quarterback to ever play home games in Starkville.

Simply put it, Nick Fitzgerald is deadly running the football. How is he throwing the ball?

Through the Air

The first season as the starting quarterback for Mississippi State saw some ups and downs for Nick Fitzgerald through the air. Playing in Dak Prescott’s shadow, Fitz had his moments passing the ball, but he definitely has more than enough room to grow and to improve.

Fitzgerald’s mechanics definitely need some work before he has any thought of moving to the next level; however, he flashes the talent necessary for Dan Mullen to be able to mold him into a high-level passer. Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 230, Fitzgerald has the prototypical size to become an elite quarterback. His height allows him to see over the defense, and his frame is able to take punishment from an incoming blizter.

Fitz needs to dedicate his off-season to improving his footwork and his fundamentals from the pocket. While he has a great arm, the accuracy is not always there. Much of this may be due to his tendency to throw off his back foot or rushing his throwing motion. A quarterback’s first year starting, especially when coming out of a quarterback battle, is bound to have both highs and lows. While Fitz certainly has his flaws, he also has some skill.

With Mullen at the helm, Mississippi State fans should feel confident about the quarterback. Mullen has been building up a reputation as one of the elite quarterback whisperers among all of college football due to his work with the likes of Alex Smith, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, and now Nick Fitzgerald.

Walter Football reported from an anonymous scout that Mullen’s résumé is highly thought of in NFL circles. With Nick Fitzgerald draft eligible, this could play a factor in how much teams are interested in the second year starter.

"“Dan Mullen, meanwhile, had Josh Harris, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, and now Fitzgerald. In fact Mullen coached Cam longer than Malzahn. Four of those six had barely one offer coming out of high school. I’d trust Dan Mullen to develop a quarterback over Malzahn. Fitzgerald just broke his school season total offense record following the best player in school history and Fitzgerald is just three years removed from running a Wing T offense in Georgia high school. Plus he’s 6-foot-4, 230-pounds. He’s basically a faster better arm version of Tebow.”"

That is a strong review from somebody in the scouting industry. Dak Prescott’s stellar season with the Dallas Cowboys has opened many eyes across the sport. With Fitzgerald putting up monster numbers last season, scouts are beginning to take more and more notice of Mullen’s track record with the quarterback position.

I am not alone on the thought that Nick Fitzgerald could potentially see his name rise on draft boards over the course of his junior campaign. Cover 32’s Jacob Infante says Mississippi State’s signal caller is his personal sleeper for next year’s NFL Draft.

"My biggest sleeper in this class? Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, he looks the part of an NFL quarterback. He has a strong arm and shows promise in his ball placement. He’s not just another big guy, though. This kid can run. He ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns, while adding on 2,423 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. Sure, he looked like a project in 2016. He’s inconsistent with his accuracy and doesn’t wow anyone as a decision maker yet. But, with some further coaching, he could rise up draft boards this season."

Looking ahead to next year’s draft prospects, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold, and UCLA’s Josh Rosen are widely expected to be the cream of the crop for the 2018 QB class. Projecting Nick Fitzgerald to be in that same class, at this stage, is way too early. However, Fitzgerald’s skills — in addition to Mullen’s history of developing QBs — can help Mississippi State’s signal caller slowly see his name rise on draft boards.

More from Maroon and White Nation

It’s also worth nothing that the NFL is evolving into more of a spread offense league. Versatile quarterbacks such as Dak Prescott, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, and Tyrod Taylor are changing the way coaches think about using their quarterback behind center. The threat of running keeps defenses from sitting back in coverage and forces defenders to stay on their heels, no matter the situation. Obviously, quarterbacks must be able to read coverages and make NFL throws, but scouts seem to be more intrigued about athletic and dynamic quarterback prospects.

A solid off-season of honing his raw ability will be very beneficial for both Fitz and Mississippi State’s football team in the 2017 season. Whether or not he improves to the point of becoming a top NFL prospect, I definitely expect Nick Fitzgerald to build on his stellar first year campaign for the Bulldogs.