August 4, 2014 9:19:03 PM
STARKVILLE - It was an ordinary practice, cool for early August. And with morning meetings, afternoon meetings and workouts scheduled leading up to the practice, Mississippi State's position players slowly trickled out of the team's Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex on Saturday afternoon. Well, every player except one.
Sprinting out ahead of the rest of MSU's position players, junior quarterback Dak Prescott was the first player on the field late Saturday. It was a common gesture, one repeated on practice fields throughout the country as leaders and team captains look to lead their teams by example.
But the message was clear: Prescott will set the tone for the 2014 Bulldogs.
It was a perfect snapshot of what Prescott - and the quarterback position - will mean to the Bulldogs when the new season opens on Aug. 30.
"He is a leader, pure and simple," said MSU RB Josh Robinson, like Prescott a Louisiana native. "Not a lot of quarterbacks are willing to do what he does. He can get in there and get dirty with the offensive line, with the running backs. He's just Dak, and that's what he's always going to be."
For the first time in his career, Prescott owns the starting quarterback job at MSU, where he posted 2,907 total yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore. Those numbers came in relief of starting QB Tyler Russelll, as injuries forced Prescott in and out of the lineup.
Now, with nearly a full season under his belt, Prescott is the bell cow of a quarterback group that looks to be built in his image.
Gone is Russell, a 6-foot-5 pocket passer who struggled to move the chains with his legs, and in his place stands Prescott, MSU coach Dan Mullen's biggest dual-threat since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow during Mullen's days at Florida.
Behind Prescott are three signal callers - sophomore Damian Williams and freshman Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley - who each possess at least a sliver of Prescott's skillset.
It could be Mullen's strongest quarterback group yet at MSU.
'He's a winner'
MSU's success in 2014 will likely start with Prescott. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Prescott seems tailor-made for the pounding an SEC season can put on a quarterback in Mullen's run-based spread offense. He rushed for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago despite playing in only eight games, yet Mullen believes the strongest part of Prescott's game might have nothing to do with carrying a football.
"He's a winner," said Mullen of Prescott. "In his mind, he wakes up every morning wanting to be the best that he can be and doesn't look for a short cut or any other way other than through hard work. That is how people become successful, he just happens to be playing quarterback."
Through the air, Prescott passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior, good enough for third in both categories among returning quarterbacks in the SEC. And while Mullen says the Haughton, Louisiana native was "An average passer" when he showed up to Starkville three years ago, he now says "he is a pretty good passer, but he wants to be a great passer. When you have that drive and work ethic, it allows you to do that and accomplish more."
Thrust into action
Prescott is a known commodity. Behind him, though, is a trio of young apprentices who must be ready when called upon. That's exactly what happened to Williams, a sophomore from New Orleans, late in 2013.
Though he played early in the season against Troy, Williams was basically a non-factor as a true freshman until November. When Russell and Prescott were both ruled out against Alabama, Williams was forced into action. While he performed well against the Crimson Tide in a 20-7 loss, the freshman QB scored a game-winning 25-yard touchdown in overtime against Arkansas and was rewarded with a win in his first career start in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss.
Now a sophomore, Williams has a year in the offensive system and the experience of valuable playing time down the stretch.
"During training camp last year, nobody thought Damian would start the Egg Bowl," said Mullen. "He started and got a win as a starter. Our jobs are to make sure we get guys ready for those situations. We try to do that through the course of the season and throughout the whole season. You never know when some huge moment is going to come on us and we need to make a play."
Behind Williams, the battle for MSU's No. 3 spot will be a fight between a pair of Georgia products. Nick Fitzgerald is a 6-5, 225-pound dual-threat QB out of Richmond Hill, while Elijah Staley, from Marietta, is listed at 6-6, 235 pounds.
Fitzgerald got a bit off a jump in the race by enrolling in the spring but Staley, the biggest player yet to line up at QB under Mullen, could make up ground this fall.
"The freshmen, it's still really early and they're getting used to being here," said Mullen. Elijah [Staley] is two days into a playbook. We will have to see how he picks it up. Nick [Fitzgerald] had the spring so he has an advantage at this point."
Fitzgerald rushed for 1,429 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior at Richmond Hill High and he added 778 yards and 12 TDs through the air. Staley, meanwhile, passed for 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns in just five games a senior at Marietta-Wheeler.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat