Calling Dak Prescott difficult to replace is selling it short. Arguably the best player in Mississippi State history is in the NFL now, and for the first time in a long time, it’ll be a player other than Prescott under center for the beginning of the season.
Nick Fitzgerald looks like the presumptive favorite to grab the role, but expecting him to play anywhere near the level that Prescott did in back-to-back First Team All-SEC seasons is unfair.
But Mississippi State fans can expect to see more of the same kind of offense with Fitzgerald at the helm, even if he’s not as dynamic as Prescott.
Dan Mullen’s offense is built around the goal of being unpredictable. It attempts to provide zero clues to the defense about what’s coming. Almost every play, whether it’s a run or pass, comes from a similar formation with the same zone blocking and same motion in the backfield.
One formation that Mullen uses often is shotgun with four wide receivers, stacking three of those receivers on the wider side of the field. With three receivers so close to each other, the Mississippi State offense is able to attack in four different ways without giving the defense a clue which one is coming.
1. Bubble screen
Three receivers so close together means two can immediately block if the quarterback darts a pass out to the sideline.
2. Hand off
The Bulldogs offense at its core is a power running scheme that likes to keep things rolling downhill. Mississippi State ran the ball 427 times compared to 500 pass attempts last season, which is much closer to balanced than most expect from a spread offense.
3. Play-action pass
Prescott wasn’t drafted by the Dallas Cowboys for his running ability. While his athleticism surely factored, he showed on multiple occasions that he can push the ball downfield effectively.
4. Quarterback keeper
Prescott finished his senior season with 160 rushing attempts and 10 rushing touchdowns. No other player on the team had 100 attempts or more than three rushing touchdowns.
All four offensive attacks came from the same formation and didn’t give Auburn much of a clue of what was coming.
After losing Prescott, Mullen isn’t going to reinvent the wheel. His simplified spread offense is quarterback-friendly, and players like Fitzgerald and Nick Tiano were recruited to run it.
Fitzgerald mostly saw time in clean-up duty as a redshirt freshman, but things didn’t look much different at all when he stepped in for Prescott. But as a byproduct of being responsible for winding out the clock, most of Fitzgerald’s responsibilities were to handle the running game. He only threw 14 passes, and had 23 rushing attempts with plenty of handoffs to Bulldogs running backs.
Running Mullen’s offense isn’t about being a great passer or a great runner. It’s about being balanced enough to make the opposing defenses respect both and tough enough to handle the grind of getting hit as a rusher. Losing Prescott obviously will hurt Mississippi State, but if Fitzgerald can continue to show the promise he did in 2015, the Bulldogs should still have an above-average offense.