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Fitzgerald, Bulldogs open season against Charleston Southern

Noah Siano | The Reflector
Fitzgerald, Bulldogs open season against Charleston Southern

With second year starter Nick Fitzgerald at the helm, the Mississippi State University Bulldogs aim to reach new heights as they open their season tomorrow against Charleston Southern University.

The Dak hangover is officially over, as Fitzgerald  squashed any quarterback controversies. Last season, Fitzgerald proved to his teammates and MSU fans alike he is the man for the job.

The dual threat QB blazed past defenses last year for an SEC record of eight 100-yard rushing games for a QB, and said he wants 2017 to be the season he showcases his talent as a passer.

The redshirt junior from Richmond Hill, Georgia, entered this preseason confident in his role on the team. Fitzgerald’s confidence allowed him to focus solely on improving his skills as a QB, without worrying about other players vying for his starting position.

“During camp, I wasn’t worrying about what other guys were doing and what play another quarterback made and how he looks,” Fitzgerald said. “It was more of me going in there focusing on things I need to focus on or working on things I need to work on and building those relationships.”

However, Fitzgerald’s new-found confidence and raw athleticism can only carry him so far. To truly distinguish himself as an elite passer, Fitzgerald will have to rely on new QB coach Brett Elliott.

A former college quarterback himself, Elliott played under Dan Mullen from 2002-2003 at the University of Utah. After several stints on pro teams, Elliott traded in the helmet for a headset.

He worked under Mullen as a graduate assistant and then as an offensive quality control coach, where he worked closely with Dak Prescott and at-the-time red shirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald. After the historic 2014 season, Elliott left MSU to pursue other coaching opportunities.

Returning to the fold in spring of this year, Elliott’s pre-existing relationship with Fitzgerald provided a smooth transition for both player and coach. No longer the raw freshman he once was, Fitzgerald, with Elliott’s help, is now focusing on the intricacies of the QB position.

“We have a great relationship,” Fitzgerald said. “Just working on the small things, tweaking throwing mechanics here and there, but mainly he (Elliott) makes sure I’m in the film room learning everything I can.”

This season, Elliott said he looks to improve Fitzgerald’s completion percentage. In the 2016 season, Fitzgerald’s passing completion was second to last in the SEC, completing only 54.3 percent of his passes.

Elliott believes it is imperative to have at least a 60 percent completion rate to keep the offense moving down the field.

“We just got to get completions, even if it’s a 2-yard check down,” Elliott said, “It makes people feel good. We get into a rhythm, but then as soon as you throw an incompletion everything stops, the rhythm stops. It’s been a big point for us this preseason.”

While there might be continuity on offense from last season to this season, Bulldog fans can expect a very different defense heading into Saturday’s game. MSU’s new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham hopes to turn the Bulldog’s defense into an offense’s worst nightmare.

“I’m excited. I think our players have worked hard and bought into our system, and now it’s time to go produce and show our abilities,” Grantham said. “We got work to do, and we certainly look forward to playing in front of our home fans and giving them something to be proud of.”

Charleston Southern, a team known for its option-style offense, will put pressure on MSU’s defensive front seven. It is crucial for the Bulldog defense to understand who has the quarterback and who is getting the pitch-man to stymie the Buccaneer’s offense.

In addition, the Buccaneers’ offensive line tends to line up with wider splits (a gap between each lineman) which will make MSU’s three down linemen’s job harder as they try to plug the gaps.

This game will be a test of discipline for the MSU secondary. The safeties cannot be lulled to sleep by the Buccaneers’ running game and then exposed by a long play action pass.

It will also be key for the corners to be physical at the line of scrimmage and shed their blocks during option plays to force the runners back into the middle.

MSU’s offense needs to use this game to find their balance for the season. Last year’s offense relied too heavily on Fitzgerald in the running game, ultimately; making the offense one dimensional.

This game should allow starting running back, Aeris Williams, to get plenty of touches and bring balance to the offense.

Similar to the offense as a whole, Fitzgerald needs to equal out his passing attempts per player and not rely heavily on one receiver.

Non-conference games like this should be utilized to build in-game chemistry between quarterback and receivers. 

Look to see if the tight ends play a bigger role in the passing offense this season, as Fitzgerald becomes a more consistent pocket passer.

The main goal for the Bulldogs, other than waking up Sunday morning 1-0, will be to get an early lead on CSU and then allow the younger and inexperienced players to get playing time. This experience, while limited, will be fortuitous for the Bulldogs as the season continues and the inevitable injuries start to pile up. 

The Bulldogs have the fourth hardest schedule in the SEC this season and cannot afford a mishap in week one.

This is a white-out game and the SEC Network will televise it. The game starts at 3 p.m.

Contact Josh Beck at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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Fitzgerald, Bulldogs open season against Charleston Southern