For the past three years, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott has been the main attraction in “StarkVegas.”
Yes, he split time with Tyler Russell in 2013, but it became clear that year that Prescott was something special. Bulldogs fans knew there was an expiration date looming for that something special, but it’s always been out of sight and out of mind.
Now, it’s only two weeks away: Prescott will play his final game as a Bulldog on Dec. 30 in the Belk Bowl.
So when the new year rolls in, who will fill the void left by the best quarterback in Mississippi State history? All signs are pointing to Nick Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, now a redshirt freshman, is a perfect fit in many ways for coach Dan Mullen’s offense. For starters, he’s even bigger than Prescott, standing at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds. Secondly, in high school, Fitzgerald ran a triple-option offense that relied as much on his legs as it did his arm. While Prescott toned down his dual-threat production this season, that was a trademark of the Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014.
This year, Fitzgerald saw action in seven games that highlighted his potential to replace Prescott, even if they were mostly in garbage time.
Against Northwestern State in mid-September, Fitzgerald split second-half drives with fellow-backup Elijah Staley. He completed all four of his passes for 90 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 28 yards and two scores. The Bulldogs would win 62-13.
But Fitzgerald’s biggest game of the season came a week later against Troy, when he entered the game late in the first quarter with a 21-0 lead and played until halfway through the fourth quarter. He completed 6-of-7 pass attempts for 141 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 38 yards and a score.
“I think he’s done a really good job,” Mullen said after practice Tuesday. “Getting to watch how Dak’s done stuff, I think he’s learned during the season how to prepare the right way. I think he’s done a good job in each practice being ready to step into the role and understanding how important that role is to the team — not just that you go out there and do your job, but the leadership and all the other things that go on with being a quarterback out there on the field.”
Mullen praised Fitzgerald’s experience in the wishbone offense — a variant of the triple-option his high school employed — as a reason why he’s had little trouble adapting in Starkville. In high school at Richmond Hill (Ga.), Fitzgerald was named the Region 3-5A Player of the Year after his final campaign.
But on-the-field talent won’t be enough to patch the hole left by Prescott next year. The fifth-year senior was as much a presence off the field as he was between the hash marks.
“People can get lazy when you have a guy like Dak,” Mullen said. “Everybody on the team can, because you have such a great leader and personality in that one guy, and all of a sudden he’s not going to be there and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for other people. I don’t expect one person to cover all of Dak’s leadership, but there’s a lot of opportunities for other guys to pick up Dak’s leadership.”
Come Dec. 31, Mullen is hoping one of those guys is Fitzgerald.