When Brian Johnson moved to Starkville three years ago, Mississippi State was unsettled at quarterback.
The first thing Johnson — at the time a 26-year-old former Utah star and offensive coordinator — did was watch film on every play from the projected starting quarterback’s young career. Then, the pair sat down and created goals for the quarterback and for the team.
By November, Mississippi State had its first No. 1 ranking in program history, and Dak Prescott was a Heisman candidate.
“Dak is extremely intelligent,” Johnson told SEC Country on Thursday. “He has a high football IQ, and he has a great work ethic that’s allowed him to be ready and have success when his number is called.”
Two seasons of elite play have raised the bar for the Bulldogs’ current quarterbacks, Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams. Both players have had great moments through the first three weeks. But both have been benched, too.
Johnson provided some insight before the Bulldogs’ flight to Boston for their game against Massachusetts (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3).
“They’re different in terms of stature,” Johnson said. “Nick’s a big, strong, physical guy with a big arm that can run and make explosive plays in the run game — like the 75-yard run against South Carolina. Damian is extremely intelligent. He makes quick decisions. He gets the ball out. He’s accurate. Both of those guys have done a good job in their preparation, and they’re continuing to develop at that position.”
He said the plan was to get both players opportunities on opening day. But a slow start by Fitzgerald made it Williams’s game. The junior stepped in to lead several strong drives in a loss to South Alabama.
In Week 2, Fitzgerald got the start and set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (195) as Mississippi State beat visiting South Carolina by 13.
Last weekend at LSU, Fitzgerald was mostly ineffective, and then was forced to come off the field for a play after losing his helmet. Williams promptly led the Bulldogs on a 17-0 run that nearly culminated in an upset win.
“Damian did a good job of getting ready for when his moment arrived,” Johnson said. “As a unit and as a position group, we’re always trying to have pride in our preparation and making sure that, ‘If my number’s called, I’m ready to go out there and execute at a high level.’”
Despite Williams’ success, Johnson clarified that “Nick Fitzgerald is our starter” going into this weekend’s matchup with the Minutemen. Here were some of his other thoughts on a variety of topics:
On being a 29-year-old coach: “It was just 8 years ago I was in (the players’) shoes, in their situation. So I think I have kind of a unique perspective on what they’re going through on a daily basis, and how to handle all the distractions that come along with playing college football at a high level. So I think that kinda provides them a little bit of sounding board, to get a chance to know that I’ve been through some of the exact situations that they’re going through on a daily basis, and understanding everything it takes to get yourself to perform at a high level. I think it’s a huge positive.”
On Dan Mullen, who helped recruit Johnson to Utah: “We’ve always stayed in constant communication. Both throughout my playing career and my coaching career, he’s always been someone I’ve looked up to and learned a lot from. When I got the opportunity to come here and get a chance to work for him, it was an awesome situation. I just continue to try and be a sponge and soak up as much information and learn as much as I can about different things and try to help us win some ballgames.”
On a tight spring QB battle, which featured “rock-paper-scissors,” among other things: “That part of it was to keep everybody engaged. It would be like, who would take the first walk-through rep that day, so we put a bunch of time into making sure all the reps were divided up in a way that we felt gave everybody the best opportunity to show what they can do. All that stuff was planned out months in advance of how the rep-counting stuff was gonna go. We made it fun. We’d start off a certain drill and ‘rock-paper-scissors’ it or pick another method, but as far as the rep count, we put a bunch of work and a bunch of detail into making sure the guys got the right amount of reps.”
On Prescott’s quick rise to NFL stardom: “I’m not really shocked that he’s performed well in the first couple weeks of the season and in the preseason as well. That’s just the type of guy he is as far as his work ethic, his command, the effort he puts into being a great player. He understands it doesn’t just happen. It’s something you’re constantly working at and constantly trying to find ways to get better each and every day, and he’s done a good job with that.”
On the traits that made him think Prescott was special: “Just the poise in the pocket, and the command of the game and understanding different situations and how to apply his skill set into those situations … He worked his tail off as a fifth-year senior to improve even more. He put himself in a position to play on Sundays for a really long time.”
Make sure to follow SEC Country and Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) on Twitter, and check out our Week 4 predictions against the spread if you’re not sure which teams to count on.