Entering the 2017 season, now less than one month from kickoff, Mississippi State is placing its promise, its hope and its next four-and-a-half months on Nick Fitzgerald. The fourth-year junior was the breakout star of the SEC last year and was voted a preseason all-conference quarterback back in July as he is expected to build on his first year as a starter.
His head coach Dan Mullen expects him to do the same, and that’s a big part of why Mullen has so much confidence in his team’s potential this year. With a good offensive line, some senior wideouts and a stud tailback, the stars of the recruiting variety are aligning for Fitzgerald and his Bulldogs to have a big and bounce-back year in 2017.
Certainly, football is a team sport, and Fitzgerald couldn’t get back to the postseason by himself, but one need look no farther than his predecessor Dak Prescott to see the impact one great quarterback can make, particularly in Mullen’s offensive system that flourishes so easily with a dual-threat quarterback. The quarterback is the leader in all ways: mentally, emotionally, even statistically. As he performs, so does the team, it often goes.
And in one play, one slip of a helmet off Fitzgerald’s head or, knock on wood, one hit that takes the junior star out for a more significant period of time, all that responsibility falls to the next man in line: an 18-year-old true freshman from Louisiana who has not only never played a down of college football, but never even watched from the sideline as a teammate.
In a warm-body-vacuum created by the transfers of three quarterbacks in under a year, Keytaon Thompson is the automatic No. 2, the backup who at any moment could become MSU’s Atlas, the Greek Titan tasked with holding the sky on his shoulders for all of eternity. Although, in Thompson’s case, eternity is limited to the length of his NCAA eligibility.
Unlike Fitzgerald and Prescott before him who were able to spend their first year quietly redshirting, learning and developing at a typical, slow pace, Thompson is having to prepare to be the backup immediately, and being the backup means being prepared to be the starter at a moment’s notice. Certainly, the hope is that he never has to play until the end of the games when MSU is up big, but it was just a few years ago that another true freshman quarterback was thrown into the fire when not one, but two quarterbacks went down with injury. In the SEC, in big-boy football with so much on the line, you’ve always got to be ready.
What Thompson does have in common with Prescott and Fitzgerald, however, is what will help him as he prepares for the season. For one, he’s got natural physical and mental ability, enough so that Fitzgerald even went so far as to say the freshman is “leaps and bounds” ahead of where he was at that point in his own career. Second, Thompson got the same head start as the two QBs who came before him by enrolling in school a semester early and going through a full spring of practices at a time that he should have been finishing his last semester in high school.
MSU quarterbacks coach Brett Elliot, yet another former Mullen-coached quarterback, knows how valuable that extra time was for a freshman who is being counted on in a variety of ways.
“He’s picked up where he left off mentally,” Elliot said. “Now he’s got to take that next step and run the show. He knows what he’s doing. I don’t know how confident he is in what he’s doing, but he knows it. He’s just got to, now, exude it. As a quarterback in this offense, we make a lot of checks, a lot of calls. Got to make sure guys are in the right place.
“We’ve had that conversation and he understands that it’s next guy up. He’s got to be ready to go. He’s got to take it up to that next step, which obviously has got to be expedited with our quarterback situation. It’s not optimal. You’d rather bring him along slowly. But he’s got the ability to do it mentally and physically.”
From a purely physical standpoint, Thompson is more polished than most his age. He’s got some work to do on tweaking a few little things. He occasionally lifts his pointer finger off the ball when he throws, which hurts accuracy. He’s got to keep his back foot down when he throws. But for the most part, he’s ready to go.
And mentally, there’s no doubt about his capacity to learn and understand, something he’s already shown. Beyond just comprehending and memorizing a football playbook, this is a guy who graduated high school early and with ease, an 18-year-old who plays chess for fun.
“Oh, he’s smart,” Elliot said. “He gets it. He’s just got to believe and know that he gets it and be confident. When you make the check, it’s not timid. It’s a confident, loud check. In terms of maturity, that guy is way beyond his years.
“You’ve got to get him confident in what he’s doing. A lot of times it’s just film work. Going over film, asking, what are you doing? Say it loud and do it in the meeting. Be loud with it. Kind of the running joke in our meeting is, ‘What, KT? What?’ It’s speak up, be loud, be confident. So we practice that in meetings. You’ve got to practice it to do it, just like anything else.”
Naturally, much of that confidence is built from successfully applying the things he learns on the field, and that’s something Fitzgerald says the young quarterback is doing. The junior has seen his freshman protégé start to make impressive plays in practice, an occurrence he believes has helped Thompson gain the respect of teammates both old and young.
Fitzgerald knows how hard it was just to be a freshman with no expectation or, really, even a possibility of playing, and he acknowledges that the pressure coming with trying to be a freshman and the backup is significant. Like everyone around him, Fitzgerald hopes it’s not something his team ever has to worry about. So long as health and a small dose of good fortune are on their side, Fitzgerald will continue to carry the sky on his shoulders while Thompson watches, studies and learns from beneath the clouds, the same way Fitzgerald once did behind Prescott.
But, if the time should come to pass the maroon and white mantle, MSU is hoping – and believing – the next man up will be ready for it.
“He works his butt off,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s in here watching film, trying to learn with coaches, just trying to make sure he’s going to be ready. Ultimately, I think he’s doing a very good job.”