Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who helped the Bulldogs to an Outback Bowl season, is hopeful of hearing his name called during this week’s NFL Draft. It begins Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to the Dispatch
April 24, 2019 1:55:43 AM
Back and forth, to and fro.
Roughly 60 miles off the coast of Naples, Florida, a boat carrying Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Washington State's Gardner Minshew and Ole Miss' Jordan Ta'amu bobbed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Organized by quarterback guru Ken Mastrole, Fitzgerald and the others spent the day soaking in sunshine, letting off casts and making small talk as part of a deep sea fishing trip designed to get their minds off football.
In the months since the 27-22 Outback Bowl loss to Iowa, it's here in the Florida sunshine that the former MSU signal caller has found himself -- on the water and on the field -- under Mastrole's watchful eye.
"He's someone that I can talk to about anything whenever I want to," Fitzgerald said. "If I ever need anything, he's going to be there for me. It's just a lot more personal than a quarterback and a quarterback coach."
Beginning Thursday night, when the NFL Draft starts in Nashville, Fitzgerald will wait for his name to be called. Fitzgerald's NFL.com profile lists him as a priority free agent.
The Fitzgerald-Mastrole relationship was one formed by opportunity.
Derrick Fitzgerald, Nick's father, was at a college football coaches' convention in 2017 when he was introduced to the quarterbacks coach.
"They hit it off," Nick said.
Mastrole, a former Maryland and Rhode Island quarterback, spent five years in the Arena Football League as a player and offensive coordinator. In 2009 he established the Mastrole Quarterback Academy, where he trains everyone from NFL draft hopefuls to high school prep stars. His past clients include NFL first-round picks Teddy Bridgewater and EJ Manuel.
With limited time during the offseason, the past three months have given Fitzgerald a chance to work with Mastrole consistently for three to four hours per day.
In that time, he has become a lab rat of sorts.
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Fitzgerald has the ideal size for an NFL quarterback. His athleticism also speaks for itself.
Fitzgerald finished his career in Starkville as the SEC's all-time leading rushing quarterback with 3,607 yards. Where he struggled was his passing accuracy. As a senior, Fitzgerald was 145-of-281 for 1,767 yards and 16 touchdowns.
His completion percentage was a middling 51.6 percent -- down from 55.6 percent in 2017.
"I just think he needed a lot of little things, tweaks," Mastrole said. "Working on functional strength, it was one of those things where he just broke down on certain throws, so that's really what we especially hit the last nine weeks of the combine-training process."
Beyond the physical, Mastrole has pushed the mental side of being an NFL quarterback on Fitzgerald.
Though he played five years at MSU, Fitzgerald's development was limited in high school. He spent time at receiver as future Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen was slotted ahead of him on the depth chart.
"He could have very easily been our starting quarterback maybe his sophomore, junior year," former Richmond Hill head coach Lyman Guy said. "But he was a team player. He was easy to move around and he was so gifted as an athlete he was good at whatever he did."
With a relative blank slate, Mastrole reworked Fitzgerald's motion by recreating the muscle memory behind his throw.
"You have to be really stringent in terms of the repetitions and the exercises 'cause it's not just out on a football field," Mastrole said. "We might spend an hour, we won't even touch a football"
With a tweaked motion and renewed mentality, Fitzgerald headed back to Starkville.
Things started to click.
Appearing in MSU's Pro Day on March 27, Fitzgerald worked through varying route trees with Mastrole looking on. He was accurate in the nearly 15-minute session, keeping misfires to a minimum. Mechanically, his release was smooth and he was quick through the top part of his motion while following through toward his targets.
The session wasn't perfect, but if you ask Mastrole the improvement was evident.
"If you looked at his pro day, if you looked at the combine, I thought he was very effective throwing the ball in the case of really breaking him down," he said. "In terms of his throws you'll just see a cleaner thrower. He's way more compact."
But where in the NFL Draft he is chosen over three days this week remains a question.
Though he ran receiving routes at Pro Day, Fitzgerald and his agents insist he's prepared to play quarterback in the NFL -- a feat thanks in no small part to Mastrole.
"I think somebody just needs to give him an opportunity," Mastrole said. "He's just got to continue to work on his game outside and offseason and even on his own...I think if he does then I think he can stick and play for a while if he does all those things."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch.
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