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Why Dan Mullen, Joe Moorhead think Bucs’ Nick Fitzgerald could stick in NFL

The SEC’s worst passer might have an NFL career because of his versatility.
Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs the ball past Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end Chauncey Golston (57) in the first quarter during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Tuesday, January 1, 2019. (BRONTE WITTPENN|Times)
Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs the ball past Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end Chauncey Golston (57) in the first quarter during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Tuesday, January 1, 2019. (BRONTE WITTPENN|Times)
Published May 30, 2019

DESTIN — When Bucs rookie Nick Fitzgerald spoke at last year’s SEC media days, he still didn’t know why Dan Mullen offered the no-name recruit a scholarship spot as a quarterback at Mississippi State.

Fitzgerald had planned to ask about it during his senior year in Starkville, but Mullen left for the Gators before he got the chance.

“It’s a tough decision, because you’re looking at a guy that’s basically unrated, that nobody else is even considering,” Mullen said. “You have to trust your evaluation of who and where he is and does he fit what you’re looking for.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fitzgerald would ‘probably be in Murfreesboro’ without Mullen

And Fitzgerald had what Mullen was looking for — the raw abilities that can’t be taught coupled with the personality to pick up everything that can be.

Six years later, Mullen thinks the same traits that led him to take a chance on a receiver-turned-quarterback whose only other offer was Middle Tennessee State are the same two that could land the SEC’s worst passer on the Bucs’ final roster as a multi-faceted athlete.

“You saw a guy that had athleticism,” Mullen said this week during the SEC’s spring meetings at the Hilton Sandestin. “You have things you couldn’t teach. He’s 6-4 with size and the athletic ability to run.”

That size and running ability are crucial to Fitzgerald’s NFL future. Although the Bucs list him as a quarterback and Mullen loved his natural spiral, Fitzgerald doesn’t have the pure passing ability to challenge Jameis Winston.

Fitzgerald’s completion percentage (51.6) in his final year at Mississippi State ranked No. 102 nationally and last in the league. His yards per attempt (6.29) and passer rating (116.8) trailed every other SEC starter. If he had been a sharper or steadier than his 11-of-26 performance against his former coach in September, the Bulldogs, not the Gators, might have won the Mullen Bowl.

But Fitzgerald still led Mississippi State to an 8-5 season against a brutal schedule and left Starkville with 13 school records and more rushing yards (3,607) than any quarterback in SEC history. His powerful 226-pound frame was hard to corral.

In college, that running ability was enough to open up passing opportunities and complicate defensive game plans. In the NFL, it might be enough to allow him to play different positions or hybrid roles like the Saints’ Taysom Hill.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) participates in a special teams drill during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organized training activities on May 21, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) participates in a special teams drill during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organized training activities on May 21, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

“Whether it’s at quarterback, at tight end, at H-back, at receiver, covering punts, returning a kickoff, I think he can do a lot of things,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “When you consider 53 men on a roster, I think he brings a lot of positional flexibility and a lot of value.”

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Fitzgerald had that flexibility and value in high school, too. He played receiver until becoming the starting quarterback as a senior.

“He’s like a backup quarterback,” Mullen said. “But he wanted to play.”

And that leads to the other important trait that got Fitzgerald to Starkville and might help him stick in the league.

He has the right mental makeup to work at other positions.

When Mullen was recruiting Fitzgerald, he was impressed by the prospect’s intelligence.

“He ran the option, so he was making decisions with the ball in his hand,” Mullen said. “He was a good decision maker.”

That means Fitzgerald will be smart enough to handle the different responsibilities he’ll encounter in whatever role the Bucs choose for him.

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But, as importantly, Fitzgerald is willing to embrace another position, or positions. Mullen remembers being impressed watching his former passer catching passes during his pro day.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m a quarterback and just watch me at quarterback,’” Mullen said. “It was, whatever it’s going to take for me to be successful on the team. I think when you have that mindset and that willingness, you can adapt.”

It might be enough to help a no-name quarterback recruit turn into a long-time NFL contributor.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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