STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — If Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is going to have a storybook ending to his college career, first-year coach Joe Moorhead has to get off to a fantastic start.
The Bulldogs are a popular pick to contend for the Southeastern Conference championship after finishing with a 9-4 record last season, and a glance at the roster reveals plenty of reasons why.
Fitzgerald is among the SEC’s top returning quarterbacks and he should have plenty of help from a deep roster that includes veterans like running back Aeris Williams and defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons.
Now new-guy Moorhead — the former Penn State offensive coordinator who takes over for Dan Mullen — is trying to build the relationships necessary to take advantage of that talent.
His rapport with Fitzgerald is at the top of the list.
“You view the quarterback as an extension of yourself on the field,” Moorhead said. “You hear about the term, ‘He’s a coach on the field,’ and that’s what we need the quarterback to be.”
The 44-year-old Moorhead has developed a reputation for building high-scoring offenses. He played quarterback at Fordham and later led his alma mater to four successful seasons at the FCS level before becoming a rising star in the coaching world at Penn State, where he built a potent attack around quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
McSorley — who threw for more than 7,000 yards and 50 touchdowns over two years with Moorhead — said intelligence is a must when running an offense designed by JoeMo.
“Understanding the nuances of what he’s trying to get done and how he’s trying to attack defenses,” McSorley said. “And then details, being extremely detail-oriented, knowing the offense and your footwork and every little thing that goes into it.”
Moorhead’s offense will probably look a little different with Fitzgerald, who is one of college football’s most unusual quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior has run for nearly 2,400 yards over the past two seasons while putting up decent passing numbers.
But Fitzgerald’s future as an elite runner was cast into doubt at the end of last year, when he suffered a gruesome dislocated right ankle in the Egg Bowl. He spent most of the offseason recovering and says he’s now fully healthy and ready to do anything that’s needed on the field.
Even so, he acknowledged his role might change this year.
“I don’t think I have to go out there and run for 1,000 yards,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, I would love to. I just don’t think that’s going to be exactly our philosophy. It’s not going to be what our offense is built around — the QB running the ball over the place. I definitely will still get plenty of touches.”
One of Moorhead’s former quarterbacks at Fordham, Mike Nebrich, said Moorhead’s genius lies in his ability to adapt to the talent he’s given. Whatever Fitzgerald can do, Moorhead will find the best way to do it.
“He’s not one of those guys who says, ‘This is the package we’re running, we have to evolve to what I want to do,’” Nebrich said. “He goes in and says, ‘OK, here are the players I have, here are the strengths of my offense, now let me adapt to them.’”
Fitzgerald and Moorhead have been able to bond over several things, including their paths from relative obscurity to the SEC. Fitzgerald was not a highly recruited prospect before landing at Mississippi State while Moorhead was pretty much unknown until his time at Penn State.
Fitzgerald said Moorhead’s everyman personality is easy to like.
“He seems like the kind of guy who can connect to anyone, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Fitzgerald said. “He just has that quality about him. … He’s very straightforward, very confident and has his own little swagger.”
Likewise, Moorhead appreciates Fitzgerald’s demeanor.
“He’s an interesting cat,” Moorhead said. “He’s ultra-competitive, he’s got a great sense of humor, he cares a lot about the team and cares a lot about his performance. He’s hungry to improve.”
It remains to be seen if the relationship leads to wins on the field.
One reason Moorhead’s hire was met with such optimism at Mississippi State was because his offense seemed similar to Mullen’s. Fitzgerald said that after spending several months immersed in the system, that’s only partially true.
“We want to take shots and get big chunk plays,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not really trying to have 10- or 14-play drives. So it’s a little different philosophy than what we’re used to. We’re going to take shots downfield. The reads are very reasonable. They’re a little more natural to me. It’s a good scheme — I’m excited to run it.”