ATHENS — Yes, Georgia knew all about Nick Fitzgerald in high school. Charles Pledger made sure of it.
Fitzgerald is the fantastic quarterback who is currently piloting the SEC’s top offense for Mississippi State. He is the latest big, hulking quarterback tutored by Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs coach who knows a thing or two about building offenses around big, hulking athletes. You may recall some of previous proteges — Dak Prescott, Chris Relf, Tim Tebow.
But before Mullen knew anything about Fitzgerald, Pledger was letting Mike Bobo know all about him. Pledger is a former Georgia defensive back (1990-93) who also happens to be Fitzgerald’s second cousin. He’s routinely introduced as Fitzgerald’s uncle and he refers to him as his nephew. But actually, Nick’s father, Derrick, is Pledger’s first cousin.
And as a former Division I athlete himself, Pledger sort of oversaw Fitzgerald’s development and recruitment. So as soon as it became apparent that Pledger’s protégé was good enough to play college ball, Pledger made sure Bobo, his former Georgia teammate and then the Bulldogs offensive coordinator, knew about him.
“Oh, yeah, he was put in front of Georgia,” said Pledger, who sells commercial real estate in Atlanta. “I tried hard to get Bobo and them to look at him, but they wouldn’t do it.”
You really can’t fault Bobo or the Bulldogs there. Fitzgerald played quarterback only one season at Richmond Hill High School, located outside of Savannah. Though the Wildcats went 10-2 that year, they ran the triple option and Fitzgerald attempted only 76 passes that season, completing 43.4 percent of them. Fitzgerald was the 40th-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country per the 247Sports composite rankings.
Pledger gets that, and he wasn’t necessarily pushing his cousin on Georgia as a quarterback. He thought he was a worthy scholarship candidate simply as an athlete. At the time Pledger started shopping Fitzgerald and taking him on the camps circuit, he was already 6-foot-5 but weighed only about 205 pounds. He ran about a 4.8-second 40-yard dash.
“I said, ‘Guys, if it’s not quarterback, he can be a tight end. He can be a hybrid receiver,’” Pledger recounted in a telephone interview on Monday. “I thought he could definitely create some mismatches for defenses. I said, ‘He’s an athlete and I think you’re overlooking the fact that he’s a smart kid and very athletic.’ But nobody really looked at him.”
Nobody except Mississippi State, as it turns out. Well, MSU and MTSU. Middle Tennessee State was the only other FBS program to offer Fitzgerald a scholarship.
Fitzgerald accepted State’s offer and immediately shut down his recruiting.
“When Mississippi State offered, he called me and said ‘I’m going to be a Bulldog,’” Pledger said. “I said, ‘Well, let’s move on. Everybody else is out of luck.’”
The rest has been history, so to speak. Fitzgerald and Mississippi State have proved to be the perfect match. Nobody knows better what to do with big, physical quarterbacks than Mullen, who has made his reputation on such athletes. Fitzgerald weighs 230 now, and he has proven he can spin the football pretty well, too.
It wasn’t automatic. Fitzgerald redshirted that first season, and he had to bide his time behind Prescott, who is now earning a pretty nice paycheck with the Dallas Cowboys.
But Fitzgerald has proven worth the wait. As a sophomore last season, he started all 13 games and broke nine school records — four single-season and five single-game. The single-season school records were yards per rush (7.1), rushing yards by a quarterback (1,375), 100-yard rushing games (8) and 100-yard rushing games by a QB. Fitzgerald also set SEC quarterback records for 100-yard rushing games and average yards per rush. He’s third in SEC history behind only Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton in single-season rushing yards by a quarterback.
Fitzgerald is picking up where he left off last season. The Maroon Dogs enter their game Saturday against Georgia at Sanford Stadium leading the SEC in scoring (47.7 ppg) and rushing (297.7 ypg).
“Just goes again to show what Dan has been able to do with quarterbacks,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who said he knew nothing of Fitzgerald coming out of high school. “He saw something in the kid. He’s unbelievably competitive, physical, big. I mean, he did it with Dak Prescott. Dak was not a highly recruited guy. A guy with good size, dimensions, has the ability to throw the ball, but can run.”
I haven’t had a chance to talk to Fitzgerald just yet, but hope to sometime this week. Suffice it to say, the fourth-year junior will be supremely motivated for the tilt in Sanford Stadium. Because his Uncle Charles played defensive back for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald grew up attending Georgia games there. To this day, Fitzgerald’s idol remains former UGA quarterback David Greene. Pledger finally introduced the two this past summer when Greene wrote Fitzgerald a catastrophic injury insurance policy.
“There’s no doubt he should’ve been in Georgia red,” Pledger said.
But Fitzgerald will be in Mississippi State maroon when the East and West Bulldogs collide in a top 20 matchup Saturday night. And so will Pledger.
Well, actually not maroon.
“He has given me a white shirt with a Mississippi State logo on it. He picked the shirt out for me,” said Pledger, who attended Mississippi State’s 37-7 win over LSU in Starkville. “Obviously he’s family. I told him when he signed with Mississippi State, if he ever played Georgia I would be there to support him. That’s what I’m going to do.”