Dak Prescott is gone. 38 records, four seasons and literal miles of offense are out the door, only present now in record books and memories. That much we know. What we don’t know: who will be Mississippi State’s next quarterback? The quarterback of the present, future and, perhaps like Prescott, a quarterback for the record books. After all, both of the last passers to have multiple seasons’ worth of starts now find themselves among the statistical best in MSU history.
With the annual Maroon-White spring game Saturday, MSU’s spring practices officially came to an end, and head coach Dan Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson have to wait until August 2 before they get their four candidates back in practice. The question now isn’t who gets the job. Big picture, sure, that’s what this is all working toward, but they don’t know the answer to that right now. Junior Damian Williams, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, freshman Nick Tiano – all are legitimate options, given such an even chance that their complete number of reps in practices and scrimmages throughout the spring differs by only single digits, if at all.
The question right now, the one we can actually answer, is how someone gets the job.
“To me,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage, “it’s about the consistency of play. All of them have the ability to make plays. All of them have the ability to make things happen, extend plays, run the ball, scramble, make some great throws. But they’re learning that it’s what you do on a consistent basis. Every single snap. It’s the most important thing.”
“That’s the biggest issue, is the consistency,” Johnson confirmed. “I think what kind of naturally happens when you’ve got four guys competing, one guy will play well one day, then the next day the other guy will play well.
“That’s what we preach to them every day. Who can be the most consistent? That’s huge. Once you get to this point, all four of them are extremely talented, and they all do certain things very, very well. But consistency of being the same guy every day in your performance, your attitude and your leadership. Just being very, very consistent and leading the team will be key.”
Mullen shared his belief Saturday that all his quarterbacks are “pretty even” coming out of the spring, while Johnson confirmed that it has been a true four-man race. They don’t have many more answers now than they did when the spring began, which they don’t believe to be a bad thing, knowing there is a long way to go before the season begins. Mullen and Johnson each said they’d like to see the field naturally pared down as time goes by, with someone hopefully emerging from the pack, and both said they think the summer is when that starts.
Yes, the summer, when coaches can’t work with the quarterbacks. Johnson and Mullen can break down practice, game and scrimmage film all they want to decide who is best, but they both know that one of the most important factors isn’t what they think, but what the rest of the team thinks. That’s what develops over the summer when players are on their own watching film, working out, running routes and preparing for the next round of practices in August.
“That’s an opportunity for them to really showcase their leadership abilities in the summer when we’re not around,” Johnson explained. “It’ll be moreso for their teammates than us as a coaching staff. What they do out on the field and in the weight room during the summer, that will dictate a ton going into fall camp through their teammates.
“Chemistry wins in college football,” he continued. “I’ve never been a part of a great team that didn’t have great leadership from within. And as you all know, quarterback is an inherent position of leadership.”
Certainly, that leadership and respect from teammates is part of what made Prescott so successful for so long at MSU. He’s a talented player, of course, but his teammates believed in him and they wanted to play for him. None of the current candidates will be Prescott, just as Prescott couldn’t be any of them. Each player has his own personality, his own brand of leadership. The key is having it recognized.
Beyond the intangibles, however, Mullen espoused tangible reasons for his belief that the summer is when strides will be made (or not made) in this quarterback battle.
Coaches are only allowed so much time to work with their players, watch film with them, work on the field with them. If those limited hours are the only time guys spend on becoming a better quarterback, they’ve got no shot. The reality of the situation, fair or not, is that they have to dedicate a great deal of personal time to become the quarterback Mullen and Johnson are looking for.
Basically, Mullen wants them dreaming about the playbook.
“You’ve gotta do something 10,000 times,” Mullen said. “You’ve got to be in the dorms at night taking footwork steps. There are so many things they can do, that they have to do, if they want to become great players.”
As for the candidates themselves, that’s their plan. Work as much as they can, watch as much film as they can, study both themselves and others. That’s part of Johnson’s teaching method, too. Watch your own film, yes, and see what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. But, also watch your teammates. Learn from their successes and mistakes.
While competition can surely be frustrating, it also provides an opportunity for growth not often present when a battle stagnates and a starter is named. Iron sharpens iron, as it was written, and MSU has a large group of irons in the fire.
“You have to watch everybody else,” Fitzgerald told reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage, “because you don’t want to make the same mistake that someone else made. Make a mistake, that’s fine, but you can’t make the same mistake twice, and you definitely can’t make the same mistake someone else made that Coach already corrected them for.”
Fitzgerald played the most of any non-Prescott quarterback in 2015, and some might consider him to be the presumptive leader, but he knows it’s not that easy. Williams remains the most experienced of the group, with two years of experience, three years on campus and the benefit of being the only one to have started an actual game. Were it not for the injury requiring a redshirt, Williams would have played plenty in 2015. Same for Staley, who wasn’t truly healthy until near the end of the season. Then, of course, is Tiano, the youngest and least-experienced, but perhaps the most natural leader of the bunch.
“I want to lead by example,” Tiano said. “I want to show these guys when I play that I’m giving all that I’ve got, putting my heart on the field, and hopefully they follow. You’ve got to be patient, got to watch, got to learn, and when you get your chance, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
“With the competition being open all the way,” Fitzgerald offered, “all four of us have kind of come into our own leadership roles. We all have great chemistry. We’re still really good friends. We love each other to death. We’re always helping each other out. At the end of the day, I think all of us just want whoever is going to be the best for Mississippi State to play.”
“[Staley] is a hoss to bring down,” Fitzgerald continued when asked to break down the competition. “He has a cannon of an arm. He definitely has the best arm on the team. Damian is extremely smart. Really became a student of the game when he got to campus and has continued that. Tiano is young, but y’all saw today, he runs very physically. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and he’s also extremely smart. He’s going to be a good player.”
Each of them have their own strengths, and as senior running back and receiver Brandon Holloway noted, they’re very different players, though they are certainly all very large humans for the position. Holloway believes, like Mullen and Johnson, that the summer will go a long way in deciding who is ultimately named QB1 for the Bulldogs.
“This summer, coming up, that’s all we’re going to be working on is chemistry,” Holloway said.
Sitting now in mid-April, MSU’s coaches are excited to get to the other side of summer and see where their quarterback battle stands then.
“There’s a lot of time in there, especially at the quarterback position, for someone to go separate themselves between now and August 2,” Mullen said.