SEC Football Media Days: Mullen excited about Nick Fitzgerald’s development

The 2017 SEC Football Media Days are underway in Hoover, Alabama. Dan Mullen answered questions pertaining to Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald, and more.

After a disappointing season in 2016, Dan Mullen and Mississippi State are looking to make some noise in the SEC in 2017.

Nick Fitzgerald burst onto the scene for Mississippi State last fall. After finally taking control of the quarterback job for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald never looked back. The redshirt-sophomore led the Bulldogs to big wins over fourth-ranked Texas A&M and Ole Miss in the month of November to build some momentum heading into this season.

Replacing the best player in program history is never easy. That magnifies when it is at the quarterback position and said player wins NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year for one of the most recognizable franchises and brands in sports. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald grew comfortable as the season went on.

Knowing that Fitzgerald still has some work to do throwing the football, Dan Mullen built the offense to magnify Fitz’s strengths. Mississippi State ran a run-heavy, spread option style of offense to give Fitzgerald opportunities to burn defenses with his legs. The result? The third most rushing yards by a quarterback in the conference’s rich history.

Nick Fitzgerald carried the football 195 times during his first season as the starting quarterback in Dan Mullen’s offense. He recorded 1,375 yards and 16 scores while averaging more than seven yards per rush. Defenses had to account for his feet and that resulted in running back Aeris Williams also becoming a force in the backfield.

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Much like Fitzgerald, Williams had to battle during the early parts of the 2016 season to be “the guy” in the backfield. State returned Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway, but Williams was the one who took the job in stride. The West Point product eclipsed 700 yards rushing, found the end zone four times and formed a deadly duo with his quarterback. Once State found its identity rushing the football, they became a nightmare for defenses to prepare for — unless it was Alabama.

Dan Mullen talked about his returning quarterback and running back during his media appearance in Hoover on Tuesday. The ninth-year head coach said the return of Aeris Williams in his backfield is comforting and should only help Nick Fitzgerald continue growing at the quarterback position. If Williams can build on his performances against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, he will become a force in the Southeastern Conference.

The media threw questions about Dak Prescott, his former star quarterback, and Nick Fitzgerald, his current star signal caller, at Dan Mullen on Tuesday. On Fitzgerald, Mullen says he expects the redshirt-junior playmaker to build on his stellar sophomore campaign.

When asked if he was surprised about Fitzgerald’s peformance last season, Mullen said he wasn’t shocked. He told the media that Fitzgerald has been the most athletic quarterback on the roster ever since he first arrived to campus in 2014. He mentioned that Fitz is more athletically gifted and probably has a better arm than Dak Prescott, but that Dak is “the hardest working individual I’ve ever been around”.

Mullen believes Fitz has taken this summer to continue honing and developing his skills. Fitzgerald has all of the tools necessary to become one of the elite quarterbacks in college football, but Mullen reiterates that it takes hard work to truly become a great QB in the SEC. Mullen alluded to how Tom Brady still works on his craft, even after all of the success he has had.

“It is the constant development of being a quarterback,” the Mississippi State coach said. “If you look that skill set, Nick’s got size. I’m not making him any taller. He’s got the great physical physique build at about 230 pounds to be a quarterback in this league. He’s a great runner. And he’s got strong arms. He’s got the skill set to do it. But it’s the development of a quarterback. I bet if you look at Tom Brady, he’s working on his pocket, his throwing motion, thinking, ‘How do I become more accurate? How do I become a better passer?’ That is a skill, and I think that’s a skill that you can constantly work on.”

Mullen says that Fitzgerald needs to continue developing on the little things that takes a quarterback to the next level. Mullen is hoping to see his former triple-option quarterback develop the same habits as Dak and Brady.

“The biggest strides we need to see in Nick are his consistency in throwing the football, the accuracy, the decision-making..”

Mississippi State’s head man mentioned how Dak “bought in” to the things that make a great quarterback. He said that before Dak, Chris Relf did the same thing. Tim Tebow, Chris Leak, and Alex Smith all bought in to what Dan Mullen preached to his quarterbacks, too. It worked out pretty well for all of them — Dak is starring in the NFL, Relf had an unblemished record in the Egg Bowl and a big victory over Michigan, Tebow won the Heisman, two Maxwell Awards, and a national championship, Leak won a title, and Alex Smith was drafted number one overall.

It goes without saying that Dan Mullen is one of the elite quarterback whisperers in all of college football. His lengthy and impressive track record stacks up with anybody in the country. Can Nick Fitzgerald continue to grow?