December 17, 2013 10:46:33 AM
STARKVILLE -- One week ago, Nick Fitzgerald was trying to figure out how to ace his high school final exams.
Shortly after that test, Fitzgerald faced another one when he received a Mississippi State football playbook and was told to prepare for practice.
"Crazy to think I was a high school senior taking exams two days ago," Fitzgerald tweeted Saturday morning. "Now I'm about to pad up and practice with an SEC team."
Fitzgerald's decision to enroll in college early has given him the opportunity to work with MSU (6-6) as it prepares to play Rice (10-3) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31 (ESPN), in Memphis, Tenn.
"When we told him of the opportunity, his eyes got really wide and said, 'Oh, that sounds neat,' " MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "Then I said, 'You're going to be the No. 2 quarterback,' and that's when the eyes got really wide open. But you know what, what an unbelievable opportunity for him to come out here and get a couple of reps."
NCAA rules prohibit Fitzgerald from playing in the bowl game or receiving any of the merchandise given to the players get while at the bowl. Fitzgerald's biggest reward -- early experience -- is one Mullen hopes more Mississippi high school players will choose.
Freshman Damian Williams and the 6-foot-5 Fitzgerald, who is from Richmond Hill (Ga.) High, have taken a majority of the snaps at quarterback early in the football team's bowl practices. MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning has used the time to evaluate them against scout team defenses. He worked with both quarterbacks Monday on looking off the deep safety before they throwing a post route to the corner.
"We knew a lot about Nick from (the Big Dawg Camp in Starkville), and we're really excited to have him because he's got a lot of ability," Koenning said. "It's remarkable how well he's picking up (the offense)."
Fitzgerald is one of two quarterback prospects in MSU's Class of 2014. Three-star 6-foot-6 commit Elijah Staley is the other. National Signing Day is Feb. 5, but Fitzgerald already has the lead in adapting to college life.
"A lot of it is just time management coming from high school to college," MSU sophomore starting quarterback Dak Prescott said. "That's what I told him, and I'll just continue to stress it to him and just help him learn the ropes."
Fitzgerald completed his senior season in high school with 778 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for 1,429 yards with 25 scores. Mullen isn't concerned with Fitzgerald's low numbers because his Georgia high school ran the Wing-T offense, which required Fitzgerald to run the ball more than throw it. Mullen used former Utah quarterback and current Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith to describe how he envisions Fitzgerald developing. Smith, who was a No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, was in a run-first offense in high school and had future Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush as his primary tailback. Mullen hopes the change to a more aggressive, balanced attack will showcase the skills they saw this summer in camp.
"It's kind of a whirlwind for him," Koenning said of Fitzgerald's week last week. "If you watch us, I'll turn and give Dak a play and then tell him to go coach Nick up on it."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
1. Westburg powers MSU past North Carolina COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Berkery adds former MLB pitcher Oswalt to staff at Starkville Academy HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS