The most interesting player in the SEC for the upcoming 2017 campaign is ...
The SEC will once again be chock full of stars this coming season on both sides of the football.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. There were 11 1,000-yard rushers in 2016, and nine of them return this season. There are tons of top pass catchers, too.
Defensively, LSU pass rusher Arden Key is one of the premier sack artists in the country. Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones is the surest tackler you haven’t heard enough about just yet. On the back end, Crimson Tide cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick has sticky fingers and a nose for the painted area.
But as far as I’m concerned, the most interesting player in the conference is at Mississippi State.
It’s Nick Fitzgerald, the rising junior signal caller. He had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of arguably the greatest Bulldog in the 112-year history of the school, Dak Prescott.
According to his final statistics, Fitzgerald was quite productive for coach Dan Mullen. He paced the league with 37 total touchdowns, 21 through the air and 16 more on the ground. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder finished eighth in the league in yards passing (2,423) and second in rushing (1,375).
Still, Fitzgerald was a yo-yo week to week. He traded back and forth between awful and unstoppable.
As a passer, Fitzgerald went over 300 yards three times. However, two of those three were against Massachusetts and Samford. He only did it once in eight tries vs. legit conference foes (Arkansas).
As a rusher, Fitzgerald ecliped 100 yards eight times and scored multiple TDs in seven of his last eight. But in the five games he didn’t break triple digits, MSU was 0-5. In other words, any enemy that managed to negate his legs was victorious. His arm talent alone wasn’t enough to compensate.
Needless to say, the West is ‘Bama country. The Tide are clearly favored to win the division again.
There are a couple of candidates that could make a run at the Tide, though. In particular, Auburn is worth paying attention to if Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham can upgrade the passing game at QB.
While the ‘Dogs might not be a popular choice to be players in the West, Fitzgerald’s hard-to-gauge upside makes them a potential wild card. If he can be the same dual-threat monster all season long that we saw in glimpses last year, then there’s no telling just how far he can take Mullen and Co.
To the surprise of many, Prescott was a quick study as a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys last year.
The truth of the matter is that Mullen’s passing attack was more pro-ready than many believed. By the time Prescott was a senior, he was making a lot of NFL-type reads and throws in that offense.
But when Prescott was a sophomore and junior, the scheme wasn’t as advanced. So many of his passes were predetermined at the line of scrimmage. Most of his reads were limited to half the field, plus running was always an option. Only as a senior was his arm finally doing more damage than his legs.
A few weeks ago at the Maroon and White spring game, the stage was set for an improved Fitzgerald.
The Davis Wade Stadium faithful hoped to see the progress Fitzgerald had made as a passer. Unlike last spring, when he was in a four-way competition, he was atop the depth chart for every practice.
Instead, Fitzgerald averaged only 4.7 yards per attempt and was intercepted an alarming four times. Yes, it was the spring game, so it was little more than a glorified scrimmage. Still, it was a dose of reality for Mississippi State fans. He didn’t seem to have any more grasp of the aerial attack.
To be fair, the two-hand-touch nature of a spring game isn’t the proper way to showcase Fitzgerald.
Unless Fitzgerald has the ability to keep plays alive — he’s hard to tackle and runs like a beast when at full steam — then the product delivered won’t mirror what we see on Saturdays in the fall.
The Bulldogs faced just three ranked opponents last season, but they were blown out of the building in two of those three. Fitzerald was a mere 42.9-percent passer with a TD-to-INT ratio of 2-to-2. He averaged 148.7 yards passing and 29.7 rushing, plus he was personally held out of the end zone.
But then against a struggling Ole Miss program, Fitzgerald dominated with 5 TDs in a 55-20 triumph.
If MSU is going to make a real run in the West, then Fitzgerald must prove capable of having a day like that against Alabama. Or if not Alabama, since that’s a tall order, then an LSU or an Auburn.
Football is a team sport, of course, so even if Fitzgerald is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink, he’s needs help. His running game hasn’t lent him enough support. His receiving corps dropped too many passes a season ago. His offensive line could do a better job protecting him, too.
Fortunately, even though Fitzgerald disappointed in the spring game, a couple of tailbacks didn’t.
Aeris Williams flashed here and there in 2016, so he needs to be given the ball more often on read-option calls. Nick Gibson didn’t contribute much as a freshman but was terrific in the spring game.
With Fred Ross out of eligibility, Donald Gray is presumably the new No. 1 target for Fitzgerald. Up front, Martinas Rankin is being talked about as a potential first-round pick at the left tackle position. Perhaps he can elevate the play of his fellow blockers and control the line of scrimmage.
We know Fitzgerald can destroy all the other Davids, but it’s time to start slaying some Goliaths.