Gators defense aware of challenge MSU’s Fitzgerald presents

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) prepares to pass during the second half Saturday against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Florida’s defense needed to look no farther than its own coaching staff to find out how much of a challenge it is to stop Mississippi State senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald, regarded as an all-around quarterback now in his final season of SEC action, honed his craft under the watchful eye of coach Dan Mullen, and on Saturday he’ll look to use that skill-set to beat his former head coach.

As UF began preparing to face Mississippi State in Starkville at 6 p.m. Saturday, Mullen was straight to the point when asked about Fitzgerald’s potential.

“He brings so many different things to the table. He’s a veteran guy, he’s hard to shake, he’s played a lot of football games. He’s got a huge arm. He can make all the different throws, can throw it underneath, go through progressions, stand in the pocket, make reads. He can throw it 70 yards in the air and he can do that from the pocket or on the run,” Mullen said. “Trying to defend his ability to throw the ball, his ability to run the ball, where he is at his best. One of the things is he’s big, he’s physical and he’s extremely fast. I think that’s the deceptive part of it is all of the sudden you think I’ve got an angle on him, and you don’t. He’s running away from everybody. And then he has the physicality to run between the tackles and the speed to run on the outside.”

If it sounds like he’s describing a former UF quarterback who made significant contributions to national championship teams in 2006 and 2008, it’s with good reason. Mullen, a connoisseur when it comes to developing dual-threat quarterbacks, has coached the only three signal-callers in the history of the SEC to record 35 passing touchdowns and 35 rushing touchdowns in their collegiate careers: Fitzgerald, former MSU quarterback Dak Prescott, and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

Exclusive company no doubt, and Mullen’s coaching staff concurs with Fitzgerald’s potential.

“Quarterback, you know, being around Fitz, he’s an NFL guy who can run it as well as throw it,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s tall, he’s really fast. I mean, he can make guys miss, and he can take it to the house. He’s got home-run speed when he runs the ball, and you look at his arm strength, he’s got a really strong arm.”

Mullen and Grantham may realize the challenge Fitzgerald presents, but they’re not the ones tasked with stopping him come Saturday. Florida’s defense will surely have an advantage considering the familiarity the coaching staff has with MSU’s personnel, but turning knowledge into power is easier said than done.

It’s a job that begins on the defensive line.

“He likes to run the ball and can throw a little bit, too,” defensive end Cece Jefferson said. “If we come out and take care of our job, then we should get the job done.”

And if the front seven can’t get the job done, Florida’s secondary will be called on to cover while remaining aware of Fitzgerald’s ability to take off and run.

“I got big trust in my defensive line, so I know we’re going to get a good pass rush,” defensive back Donovan Stiner said. “And we’re going to cover as hard as we can so give them time to get to the quarterback.”

If Florida can leave Starkville with the upset win, it seemingly hinges on stopping Fitzgerald, and that comes down to communicating over the cowbells.

“He’s a good quarterback. Coach Mullen was just telling us about his measurables, and how this team has a lot of returning players. I’m excited about the challenge. I know the atmosphere is going to be great. They probably have a lot to play for, but we’re not too much worried about that, we’re just coming to play our game,” linebacker David Reese said. “I feel like as long as we play solid technique and we’re communicating on the same page, then we should be fine.”


  1. Such an attention grabbing headline! Some suggestions for the future: Gators planning to wear shoulder pads during game –or maybe– Florida plans to watch film on opposing team. Or, game plan to include various plays.

    • Jonathan Miller – I agree with you in that our defense must NOT over run plays or be too aggressive. I am not saying don’t be aggressive, but keep it controlled aggression. Contain the QB and make him a 1 dimensional player. Get our pass rush going, contain Fitz, play sound defense and allow the offense to do its job. If the offense has any struggles then we will be in trouble. GO GATORS!!!

  2. It’s funny, you see the coaches talk about Fitzgerald like he’s a Heisman favorite who can run and has a rocket arm, but then you see comments from MSU fans and fans from opposing teams who have faced him talking about how he’s a terrible passer and if you stop the run and force him to beat you with his arm, it’s over. That’s basically exactly what UK did last week. I’m sure Mullen knows exactly what he’s incapable of doing and going to force him to do it.

    • It will be in starkvegas so I expect a better performance from him and his team than what they had last week.
      I know we all love throwing the ball downfield for touchdowns, but imo the game today rewards QBs not necessarily taking as much risk as when the ole ball coach first got here. Fitz is in a new system and its a challenge for everyone to adapt. I expect a very hard fought gator victory.

    • Joe…People criticized Tebow as a passer and he won the Heisman. It looks like Fitzgerald will break Tebow’s record for most career running and passing TDs before the season ends. I’d say he’s as good as advertised. It’s stating the obvious, but the bottom line is that our guys will need to grab him–not easy–and hold on and gang tackle when he runs with the ball, and put pressure on him when he tries to pass.
      MSt has some future NFL linemen on both sides of the ball, but that didn’t prevent them from getting ebarrassed by Kentucky. So you’d like to think, since the Gator D has two of its better players back and is playing fired up now, that the team can pull off a road win Saturday. But they’ll have to bring their A game, which means they’ll have to grade higher than they did in their other two SEC performances. Coach Mullen has them believing they can win and a lot of Gator fans are believing too. A lot of positive vibes. Go Gators!🐊

  3. IMO, a qb whose main strength is the ability to run effectively is always a wild card. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to stop an offense with that dimension, sometimes they get completely shut down. Hopefully we shut him down and force MSU to plan B as mentioned above. I fully suspect that will be the plan.

  4. He’s a consummate Dan Mullen offense quarterback….a runner. Do not over pursue or blitz this guy. He’ll take off and run right past you. That’s his trademark. Make him sit in the pocket and be a passer. I know our defensive backfield is weakened, but this is not a team that will pass for 400 yards on us. This is a team that wants to ground and pound the football. On offense, we need to generate plays and move the ball. Be aggressive on making plays. Run more aggressive and precise routes. Throw the receivers open. Let Dameon Pierce have a coming out party and let him run the football! Get Kadarius Toney at least 8 touches during the game. Those are the keys, let’s see if our defense can keep another running quarterback contained.

  5. I agree with all comments posted so far, especially Grump E. Gator’s. Our “D” is young in the secondary – do not allow MSU receivers to get behind you for an easy score. Tebow was not the most accurate passer either, but he will burn you if you give him an open receiver on a deep route (this gives the receiver time to run under the ball). I agree with giving Pierce the rock a lot more and earlier in the game, especially if MSU jumps out ahead of the Gators in the first half. Anyone who can squat in sets of 450 pounds has powerful legs which will make it difficult to tackle him below the waist. GO GATORS!!!

  6. Joe, Mullen isn’t going to give MSU any bulletin board material. Talk ’em up and build their egos. Then crush them by exposing their weaknesses just as Gator1 says. Not even the MSU coaches know the tendencies and weaknesses of this team and esp Fitz as well as Mullen does.

    I have a good feeling about this one as long as the good guys come out loose and ready to play. MSU will almost certainly be tight and trying too hard. Some want to show up the old coach or prove to him how good they are without him. Others know they HAVE to win this game to stay in the hunt. The Boys in Blue can just play like they’ve been taught and have fun. They aren’t expected to win. They don’t even have to win. They just have to play hard and represent. To me, that makes them deadly dangerous and the reason they will slay the StarkVegas Dragon.

    • First, let me thank TJ for the punctuation lesson I learned from Googling (if that’s a real word) Oxford comma (aka Harvard or serial comma). I’ve been using them forever in writing lists without knowing (or at least without remembering) that’s what they’re called. However, CDM is gonna have to throw in an occasional “and ” or “or” in order to properly use said comma.