Mississippi State Nick Fitzgerald will try to engineer the nation's biggest upset of the college football season Saturday at No. 1 Alabama. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
November 7, 2018 9:21:23 PM
STARKVILLE -- Nick Fitzgerald's return to the starting lineup was an encouraging one, two passing touchdowns and 159 rushing yards against Kansas State. Quarterbacks coach and pass game coordinator Andrew Breiner looked at the performance and saw moments where Fitzgerald was, "an inch or two off."
The first four weeks of Southeastern Conference play made those inches look like miles. A few weeks later, all is right once again. Fitzgerald has thrown six touchdown passes over the last two games and gone for more than 200 passing yards in back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 29 and Nov. 5 of 2016.
It shows quarterback development is not always linear. It is a process that has its ups and downs, but as long as the process is good, the results should reflect that. The recent improvement from Fitzgerald -- and the track record of both Breiner and head coach Joe Moorhead -- suggest MSU's process of quarterback development is a good one.
Breiner shared that process with The Dispatch before it gets its toughest test: No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC), 2:30 p.m. Saturday (WCBI).
"I'm sure the fans might not like hearing this, but Nick has truly gotten better each week," Breiner said. "Sometimes the results didn't always speak for it, but as far as looking like a quarterback that's comfortable operating the system, honestly, he's improved every week. Some weeks there's been some mental weeks and some week there's been some physical weeks, and there's going to be both every week, but the number of those are decreasing.
"He has come in there, good game, bad game, asking what he can do better and taken it to the field."
That incremental improvement was bound to happen for two reasons. First, Moorhead was pointing out as early as two games into the season that running his offense is a skill sharpened by time.
"I don't think there's a lack of comfort, but with continued familiarity with the offense and the things we ask to do, the game repetitions, I think that will help him," Moorhead said after the Kansas State game.
Looking back on it, Fitzgerald can see the benefits of the time. He's acknowledged that run-pass options (RPOs) -- the basis of the Moorhead offense -- are run and read differently in this system than they were under former coach Dan Mullen. All RPOs are based on a series of presnap and postsnap reads that determine where the ball goes, but Breiner believes MSU's RPOs may have more read options for a quarterback to decipher than most RPOs.
"I think the layers that we give to the RPO are unique," Breiner said.
More than the experience in the system, Fitzgerald reached his current level of efficiency through Breiner's daily process.
Breiner learned this method in his final year as a graduate assistant for UConn from Paul Pasqualoni, now the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. The basis of it is finding a theme for each week and making it the priority, but that emphasis evolves daily.
"As practice progresses, you have to have different focuses in practice," Breiner said. "When we're in individual drills, that's our time to work those footwork things, maybe to start talking about progressions; when we got to 1-on-1 or routes on air, it's about timing and ball location; as we get into team periods in practice, you stop talking about those things and start talking about scheme. It's recognizing the defense, making the right decision and executing. It's a progression as practice goes on. You get in the film room, you talk about both and you move on.
"Get on the field the next day and it starts all over again."
Dividing practice into chunks like so allows Fitzgerald to improve on the small things -- such as the pocket footwork Moorhead mentioned after the Kansas State game -- and the big things, as in reading defenses and a greater understanding of concepts that Moorhead mentioned in the open week.
They believe the results of that process are obvious. Fitzgerald said, "it's very apparent that I'm a lot more comfortable in the pocket," and Breiner agrees.
"When your eyes and your mind slow down, it allows your feet to slow down a little bit," Breiner said. "When you're not exactly sure where your eyes are supposed to be, I think your feet tend to follow. What I've seen is a guy who's more comfortable with what he's seeing mentally, and in turn, physically."
Through this process, Fitzgerald has found the best version of himself within this season. He has progressed in his command of the offense and his command of quarterbacking nuances.
Now, Fitzgerald gets to, "settle down and play my game."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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