The 2016 season is over, and rosters are starting to come together for 2017. It’s the perfect time to evaluate each team’s quarterback situation for next season.
Quarterback issues were a significant part of the SEC’s struggles last season, but the conference has starters coming back 12 of the 14 schools. The turnaround should be immediate. However, Mississippi State has fewer quarterback question marks than most programs.
To clarify, this grade takes into account a team’s entire quarterback situation, including backups. Just having a great starter isn’t necessarily good enough to earn a quality grade.
Make sure and read all our previous quarterback installments:
Alabama Crimson Tide | Arkansas Razorbacks | Auburn Tigers | Florida Gators | Georgia Bulldogs | Kentucky Wildcats | LSU Tigers | Missouri Tigers | Ole Miss Rebels | South Carolina | Tennessee Volunteers | Texas A&M Aggies | Vanderbilt Commodores
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Key returners: Nick Fitzgerald (junior)
Key additions: Keytaon Thompson (true freshman)
Returning production: 196-361 for 2,423 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs; 195 carries for 1,375 yards, 16 TDs
Departing production: 32-48 for 277 yards, 2 TDs; 19 carries for 99 yards, TD
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has quietly been one of the best quarterback developers in college football. In previous years, he turned Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott into quality starters. He did the same with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida.
Fitzgerald appears to be Mullen’s next great experiment. After winning the starting job for good after Week 2, Fitzgerald exploded into one of the most productive players in the conference. His arm remains inconsistent; Fitzgerald completed 54.3 percent of his passes and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt. However, Fitzgerald transformed into a monster in the ground game.
Fitzgerald ran for more than 100 yards in eight games, and led the SEC with 16 rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs were 6-2 when he reached the 100-yard plateau, compared to 0-5 in all other games. That’s an absurd difference.
Most encouraging, Fitzgerald saved his best performances for season’s end. In the final four games of the regular season, not counting Alabama, Fitzgerald averaged 265.8 passing yards per game, 172.5 rushing yards per game, 9.2 yards per pass attempt and 9.9 yards per rushing attempt. He also accumulated 22 touchdowns — again, in four games.
— Robby Donoho (@RobbyDonoho) November 27, 2016
Fitzgerald is one of the most secure starters in the SEC heading into next season. However, there’s plenty of work remaining to do with Fitzgerald. While his rushing ability is a benefit, Mullen’s offense requires more consistent passing.
Fitzgerald hit on several downfield shots as a first-year starter, especially to Fred Ross. Ross is gone to the NFL, but Donald Gray returns after averaging 17.3 yards per catch. Expect rising sophomore Keith Mixon to also transform into a major part of the receiving game. While Fitzgerald is super effective, running back Aeris Williams should help balance the Bulldogs’ rushing.
The one major concern in the position is the backups. Nick Tiano (Chattanooga) and Damian Williams (Texas State) both transferred after the season, leaving Fitzgerald the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. However, that doesn’t mean the other guys are unfamiliar.
Walk-on Wyatt Roberts of “Last Chance U” fame could be in the competition for backup minutes. However, the Bulldogs are also adding elite quarterback recruit Keytaon Thompson. He is the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback and highest-rated quarterback to attend Mississippi State since 4-star Omarr Conner in the class of 2003. Mullen might want to redshirt Thompson.
Fitzgerald has been relatively sturdy. Don’t be surprised to see Mullen hold off on Thompson unless Fitzgerald has an injury that keeps him out for multiple games.
With another offseason to train with Mullen, Fitzgerald should be better in 2017. It’s a little scary to have such question marks at backup, but that will be resolved. Relative lack of depth knocks the grade down a peg.