There have been a lot of times this season the Mississippi St. Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has looked great. There have also been times he’s looked very pedestrian. This is only his second year of playing the quarterback position, so we all knew there would be growing pains.
But if you’re looking for hope or optimism for the future of the sophomore’s career, then look no further than the recruitment and progression of former Memphis Tigers quarterback and 2016 first round draft pick Paxton Lynch.
Lynch has a similar body frame to that of Nick Fitzgerald. Lynch is 6’7” and around 230 pounds, and Fitzgerald is relatively close to that. Lynch was lightly recruited (he was just a 2 star) out of high school because he didn’t put up great stats at the position mainly due to some injuries he suffered his senior season. But then former head coach Justin Fuente saw something in him almost no one else did.
Nick Fitzgerald didn’t do a lot to impress recruiters when he was getting ready to graduate. His senior season was his first season to play quarterback, and he played it from a true option system. It didn’t excite a lot of coaches, but Dan Mullen saw something he liked.
Back to Paxton Lynch, the former Tiger redshirted his first year and was competing with senior Jacob Karam for the starting position his first season. Most thought when Fuente said there was a quarterback competition it was nothing more than coach speak. In Fuente’s first season with the Tigers in 2012, Karam completed 64% of his 274 passes with nearly 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions.
Add on to that just how likeable Karam was, and it seemed like a no-brainer to start Karam. Adding to his likeability was when this viral video surfaced before the beginning of the 2013 season. Karam made a habit of going to St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis to spend time with the cancer patients who were being treated there. He did this on his own and never asked for any recognition for it. One day while there, he was visiting with a middle school student named Breanna. During the visit, she mentioned how she liked to sing. He said he could play piano, so he offered to play accompaniment while she sang one of her favorite songs.
Karam wowed the world with his piano skills, and Breanna’s mother had no idea Karam was on the football team. After Karam left, her mom was told who it was by someone working at the hospital because he invited her family to a Memphis game. So people were shocked when Fuente made the decision to play Lynch. (Side note: Breanna sadly lost her battle with cancer in October of 2014.)
Fuente on multiple occasions had to defend the decision throughout the year. Lynch completed 58% of his passes for just over 2,000 yards. He only threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Tigers went 3-9 just like Fuente’s first season, and some thought the year could have been much better. Most of their losses were close, and a more experienced quarterback not prone to making mistakes might have put the Tigers over the hump in a few of those games.
But Fuente never wavered. He banked on Lynch getting the experience he needed to become an elite level college quarterback. The plan paid off. Memphis saw one of their best seasons ever in 2015, and Lynch was drafted in the first round.
Fitzgerald has completed around 55% of his passes with 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. As I stated earlier, there are times when Fitzgerald looks great, but there have been times the offense has struggled to do much of anything at the helm. Damian Williams played well against South Alabama and provided a much needed spark against LSU. When Fitzgerald has struggled, many have called for Mullen to switch back to Williams.
Mullen won’t because he is taking the same approach Fuente had with Lynch. He’s giving his young quarterback a long leash because he has the best potential to win games now, but also for the future of the program. There are going to be times when Mullen is willing to ride out the bumps in the ride to look towards the greater good. It won’t be easy for fans to watch, but the payoff could be enormous.
I’m not suggesting Fitzgerald is going to be a first round draft pick. He has a long way to go before anyone can ever start to speculate about such an event occurring. But if Fitzgerald can learn from all the hardships he is having to endure through this season, then he could parlay it into an amazing career.