Dawg Defense Believes It Can Adapt Against State’s Fitzgerald

Patrick Garbin, Staff
GA Varsity
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Following stellar run-pass outings against Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, and last week’s stunning 37-7 upset over LSU to open the 2017 campaign, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has seemingly appeared out of nowhere to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Seeing that the dual-threat quarterback grew up a Georgia Bulldogs fan before starring for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, it's rather ironic Georgia is next slated next for him and his teammates at Sanford Stadium.

A native of Richmond Hill, Ga., a suburb of Savannah and an approximate four-hour drive to Athens (and roughly nine hours to Starkville), Fitzgerald flew under the radar for the Richmond Hill Wildcats as a run-first quarterback, who ran the ball two-and-a-half times more than he threw it as a senior in 2013. Despite his fondness for Georgia, and relationship to former Bulldogs’ defensive back and Athens native Charles Pledger, a second cousin, Fitzgerald wasn’t recruited by UGA—not even given a look. And, head coach Kirby Smart has been hearing about it ever since.

“He's (Pledger, who signed with UGA four years prior to Smart) been telling me about the guy ever since he got over there (Mississippi State),” Smart said of Fitzgerald earlier this week. “He's done nothing but get better every [game]."

Granted, Georgia probably has a good excuse for not even giving Fitzgerald a look while he was in high school. A starter under center for just one season, he was merely a two-star prospect according to Rivals. Notably, of Georgia’s 14 quarterback signees during the Rivals era (beginning in 2002), each was rated as at least a three-star prospect while the entire group averaged a star rating of 4.0. Offered scholarships by only Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee State, Fitzgerald signed with the “other” Bulldogs, whereupon he began building on his 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame to his current weight of a bulky 230 pounds.

“Nick is a bigger guy and what not, but I'm just looking forward to the opportunity,” said junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who leads Georgia with 19 tackles. “It is all just form tackle technique at the end of the day so the bigger you are, the harder you fall."

Fitzgerald’s passing ability has developed since occasionally falling on hard times, so to speak. After redshirting as a true freshman and playing sparingly in 2015, he took over the starting job from Damian Williams early last season. Fitzgerald has always been an excellent runner, rushing for 1,375 rushing yards last season while averaging 7.1 yards per rush. However, he completed only 54 percent of his passes, averaged less than seven yards per passing attempt while throwing 10 interceptions. Fitzgerald’s 124.3 passing efficiency rating ranked 74th in the FBS. Still, he often found the end zone, passing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 16 scores while leading the Bulldogs to four wins in their final six games, including a victory in the St. Petersburg Bowl over Miami (Ohio), after a slow 2-5 start.

“Watching on film, he (Fitzgerald) wants to win,” said defensive back J.R. Reed, who is second among Georgia defenders with 15 tackles. “He'll score, and that's the biggest thing that makes him tough."

Yet, against capable defenses last season, win or lose, Fitzgerald struggled. Facing the five opponents of Mississippi State which would finish in the top half of the FBS in Total Defense—LSU, BYU, Auburn, Alabama, and Miami (Ohio)—he completed only 45 percent of his passes, averaged just over five yards per pass attempt and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Even his running suffered against the top defenses, averaging only 52 rushing yards per game and just 3.5 yards per rush. Nevertheless, a year later, Fitzgerald has evidently stepped up his game—a progression which has certainly not gone unnoticed.

“He's developed as a quarterback,” Smart said of Fitzgerald. “To see him this year compared to all the games we watched last year in the off-season, he's one of the most vastly improved players because he's not one-dimensional anymore. He was really a runner last year. That's not the case [this year].”

Rushing for an average of 80 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry, Fitzgerald has not been slowed thus far this season running the ball. Yet, somewhat contrary to last season, he has exhibited passing prowess, completing more than 61 percent of his passes, averaging nearly eight yards per passing attempt while having thrown just one interception. His 156.7 passer rating ranks a respectable 32nd in the FBS. Still, Georgia defenders realize to stop Mississippi State’s offense, they must slow their running game, which means containing Fitzgerald.

“They pride themselves on running the ball and we pride ourselves in stopping the run,” Smith said. “So, with them coming into Sanford [Stadium], I'm looking forward to it and it is a great opportunity. [Fitzgerald] can throw it and run the ball so he is an awesome guy, an awesome athlete."

Whereas Mississippi State ranks first in the SEC and 10th in the nation in Rushing Offense (297.7), Georgia ranks second in the SEC and fifth in the nation in Rushing Defense (71.0). Therefore, it seems something would have to give this Saturday. The added challenge for Georgia is that it's facing a ground game engineered by not only an excellent runner, but apparently a proficient passer, as well—a quarterback, according to Smart, who is battle tested.

“This guy (Fitzgerald) has gone up against the kind of [SEC] defenses we've had repeatedly. He's faced that a bunch,” Smart said. “He's a good player. We're excited for the opportunity to compete against him."

The question remains how will Bulldog defenders fare when given the opportunity of competing against a new age-like quarterback—a signal-caller who appears to have as much success passing as running—the likes of which perhaps a Georgia defense has never faced before? For at least one defender, the answer is relatively simple.

“It (Fitzgerald’s rushing-passing aptitude) is a different thing, and it puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Reed said. “But, our defense has to adapt to that. And, I think we'll be able to do that.”

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