Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald takes a snap in a practice earlier this month. Fitzgerald remains in competition for the starting quarterback job with Damian Williams, Nick Tiano, and newcomer Wyatt Roberts. Photo by: Mary Alice Truitt/Dispatch Staff
August 16, 2016 12:26:41 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen has a specific mold in mind when he recruits a quarterback.
Running a spread offense, the quarterback has to be more than a thrower. They have to run the ball, too. Mullen had that with Alex Smith at Utah, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida, and Dak Prescott at MSU.
In two seasons as the starter, Prescott broke 38 school records and was compared to Heisman Trophy winner Tebow. This season, Mullen will try to find a replacement for Prescott. He has three players who have been with the program since the start of training camp and another -- Wyatt Roberts -- who joined the program Sunday as a walk-on.
All four appear to fit Mullen's mold.
"One of the things you look for is versatility, and all (three) of our quarterbacks give you that flexibility," Mullen said. "All four of them can throw and run. There isn't a guy that isn't a good runner, so we're not limiting you. None of the skill sets of any of the four quarterbacks is going to limit what we do. We have to figure out who the guy is and then we can build on it."
Four quarterbacks were competing for the starting job when MSU started training camp. However, Elijah Staley decided last week to transfer, which left junior Damian Williams, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, and redshirt freshman Nick Tiano as options. On Sunday, Roberts, a former East Mississippi Community College and Louisville High School standout, joined the fray.
Mullen hasn't indicated if a quarterback has distinguished himself in the first two weeks of training camp. They have been splitting reps evenly.
Fitzgerald served as Prescott's backup last season. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald was 11 of 14 for 235 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He rushed for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Many believe he is the front-runner.
"Watching film and learning from Damian, he's extremely smart, extremely technically sound," Fitzgerald said. "Nick's young, but he's just so smart, so talented. He picked it up so fast."
Staley echoed Fitzgerald's sentiments. Before he transferred, he praised Williams' grasp of the position and offense and Tiano's progression. Even for a big guy, Staley praised Fitzgerald's ability to run.
Williams was Prescott's backup as a freshman. He started the 2013 Egg Bowl. He served as Prescott's backup in 2014, but he redshirted last season.
"I think that allowed him to become a better football player, especially mentally," MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said. "Normally when you redshirt as a true freshman, you don't know much anyway. To have some experience, to understand the game and to be able to sit back for a year and watch it after you know a little bit, I think it helps you to learn a little bit more and kind of understand from a more macro perspective."
In two seasons, the 6-foot-1, 229-pound Metairie, Louisiana, native is 37 of 70 for 434 yards and three touchdowns (two interceptions). He has 175 yards rushing and one touchdown.
Tiano is the least experienced, but he said he doesn't feel like the underdog and is fighting to win the job. He said he was nervous this time last season, but he has gained confidence and feels more comfortable.
Johnson said Tiano isn't a typical redshirt freshman.
"He's very bright, he's very intelligent, and he works extremely hard," Johnson said. "He's a really good football player. I'm excited to see how he continues to develop. He's really worked his tail off in the weight room and in the film room. He worked hard in his offseason study to put himself in the position he is now."
The 6-foot-4, 239-pound Tiano was 137 of 224 for 2,096 yards and 16 touchdowns (three interceptions) as a senior at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014. He rushed for 723 yards and eight touchdowns.
"Nick is an unbelievable athlete," Tiano said. "He's got a super strong arm. Damian is just so smart. He understands everything. It just clicks for him. He's really good mentally and fundamentally."
The quarterbacks aren't trying to be Prescott or to fill his shoes. They're trying to play within themselves and earn the job on their merits.
"There is no limitation, but we have to go off of what he does the best to be successful," Mullen said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.
5. Caledonia senior Blair Ward signs to play college soccer at MUW HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS