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The Friday Tailgate: Nick Fitzgerald’s right where he needs to be

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the Friday tailgate, in which we do anything we can to pass these last few hours before college football Saturday. What else are you gonna do? Work? Maestro, the music:

I make a pretty strident effort not to bag on student journalists, largely because (like several other members of the staff here) I was one. It’s great experience for the rest of your life when people constantly yell at you for things that weren’t your idea anyway.

But I do have to take some exception with this piece from the Red & Black this week characterizing Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald as “the one who got away” for Mark Richt in the class of 2014.

Hold. The. Phone. First, a little background. Fitzgerald led a run-heavy option attack at Richmond Hill outside Savannah. I watched him play once that I recall. He had great size and reasonable speed, but there was nothing there to me to indicate that the guy was going to be an All-SEC caliber dual threat quarterback. Apparently I wasn’t alone, as 247Sports rated him the 1566thbest prospect in that class, and the 40th best dual threat quarterback behind such future superstars as Deshaun Watson, Quinton Flowers, Trace McSorley, and Samford QB Devlin Hodges.

As I’ve said before, if you want to bag on Mark Richt for not recruiting Deshaun Watson earlier and harder than he did that’s certainly fine. Watson was a good enough passer in high school that the argument “he didn’t fit our scheme” rings a little hollow.

But Fitzgerald’s senior stat line gave absolutely zero indication he was anything but a project in college. He hit only 33 of 78 passes (42%) for a whopping 671 yards. By comparison, freshman Jake Fromm threw for 1107 yards, completing 84 of 159 attempts for Houston County while also seeing time at wide receiver. Fitzgerald’s other offers were from Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech.

And if Dan Mullen were pumped full of truth serum, I bet you he’d admit that the backup plan for Fitzgerald involved converting him into a big wide receiver who could block well on the edge. Because that’s where everyone else who saw him play foresaw Fitzgerald ending up if he played football in college.

Yes, I understand his high school coach brought him to Athens and begged and pleaded for Mike Bobo to give him a hard look. But here’s the thing. Every high school coach in America right now has at least one player he thinks college coaches are underestimating. Most of them are wrong. But when one of those disrespected, scrappy underdogs turns into a solid collegiate performer, it’s not hard to get the ole ball coach from back home to tell you how he was right and the head man at State U. was wrong. It’s a time-honored tradition.

I’m sure the folks in Richmond Hill are justifiably proud of their hometown hero. They should be, he’s accomplished a lot in a short time and may yet rewrite the Mississippi State record books.

But let’s take a moment to imagine how we would have reacted to Mark Richt signing the seventh-rated quarterback in a relatively weak Peach State quarterback class. As a fanbase, UGA partisans would have scratched their collective heads in confusion.

Especially given that Richt and Bobo actually did sign Army All-American and national top 100 QB prospect Jacob Park in that 2014 class. “Dual threat” quarterback Jacob Park. Admittedly, Park never panned out in Athens. But it’s probably also a stretch to assume that Fitzgerald would have done better learning a system that would not have suited his particular skills. Paging Faton Bauta to the courtesy phone . . .

So let’s congratulate Fitzgerald on what he’s done in Starkville. And let’s root for him in every other game he plays this season. I for one love when fellow south Georgians have success, even if it’s not in the red and black. But let’s not pretend that Nick Fitzgerald not being a Georgia Bulldog is any sort of indictment of Mark Richt’s talent evaluation skills. That’s just a lazy take for fans with a hatchet to grind. Until later....

Go ‘Dawgs!!!