STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen knows Mississippi State's place in the SEC.
He has a 64-42 record in nine seasons and has taken the Bulldogs to a school-record seven straight bowl games, but he's not going to confuse himself with the blue bloods of the conference anytime soon. That's not a knock on him or the program. If anything, he relishes the role of the underdog, squeezing every ounce out of available resources, not to mention talent.
"How we view things, we have to be a little smarter than other people," he told ESPN in 2015. "We have to come up with other solutions other than to throw money at the problem."
On Monday, less than 48 hours after dominating one of those premiere programs, LSU, in a 37-7 win, Mullen was asked what challenges Saturday's opponent, No. 11 Georgia, present. "Besides all their five-star players?" he said incredulously.
Mississippi State and Georgia share the nickname of Bulldogs, but they're not of the same pedigree. Georgia hasn't been ranked outside the top 10 of ESPN Recruiting's Class Rankings the past five years, while Mississippi State's average finish during that time is 27th. "Quarterback," Mullen said, sizing up Georgia's roster, "one five-star went out and another five-star quarterback went in." Indeed, Jacob Eason, the No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the Class of 2016, was sidelined by an injury during the season opener and was replaced by Jake Fromm, the No. 7 pocket passer from the Class of 2017.
Mississippi State simply can't do that. Not at any position really, but especially not at quarterback. Ask Mullen and he'll tell you that his is a developmental program. Once, when he was offensive coordinator at Florida, his starting quarterback was Tim Tebow and his third-stringer was a kid by the name of Cam Newton. But those days ended when he set up shop in Starkville in December of 2008. Instead of cherry-picking from the best of the best, he had to find the kind of quarterback everyone else had overlooked, the one who wasn't anywhere near ready-made for the SEC, but might get there with time.
In 2011, he found a hard-nosed, dual-threat quarterback in Haughton, Louisiana, named Dak Prescott that LSU and other programs saw as a tight end, signed him without a thought of changing his position, and during the course of five years transformed him into the best player in program history. It would be the same formula he'd follow in the summer of 2013 when another middling prospect without a Power 5 scholarship offer came to camp hoping to convince someone to let him throw the football.
Even now, when Nick Fitzgerald watches his high school highlight tape on Hudl, he winces.
The very first clip, where what should be a picturesque SEC quarterback standing tall in the shotgun, is some skinny kid crouched under center running a triple-option offense. The ball comes out of his hands, and while it's not exactly a sputtering duck, it isn't exactly beautiful either.
"Oh, man," Fitzgerald said, soaking in the humiliation.
That quarterback from Richmond Hill, Georgia, wasn't ready for big-time college football, not by a long shot. In peewee football, he'd run the Wildcat offense. And for his first three years of high school, he was backup to future Citadel QB Dominique Allen. He begged coaches to let him play anywhere, so he wound up spending time at receiver, defensive back, linebacker and kick and punt returner. He was even the backup punter.
When he did wind up inheriting the starting quarterback role as a senior, he was stuck in an offense that wanted to utilize his legs more than his arm. All told, he attempted fewer than 80 passes that season.
It's a wonder that Middle Tennessee found something in his paper-thin film worthy of offering him a scholarship to play quarterback. Let alone that an SEC school like Mississippi State did, too, even though Mullen apparently couldn't tell the difference between Middle Tennessee and UT Chattanooga.
"I know the reasons why people weren't looking at me," Fitzgerald said without hesitation.
In fact, if you ask, he'll be happy to explain all the reasons why. But be warned, he's not exactly sparing in his criticism of the quarterback he saw on those so-called "Senior Highlights."
"He had terrible footwork," Fitzgerald said. "He had an awful front arm. Pretty much his whole throwing motion was off."
He was just getting started.
"He pushed a lot of balls, almost like a shot put. He didn't really have a good follow-through. He wasn't accurate or anything about it. His front foot was off."
A deep breath and then more.
"His drops were terrible. His timing was bad. His reads were bad."
But dammit he was trying, bless his heart.
Self-taught, he didn't know what he didn't know.
"How did I even make it happen?" Fitzgerald asked.
What Fitzgerald couldn't have known at the time was that his future coach wasn't worried about all those technical things. Mullen wasn't looking for some polished 7-on-7 superstar. The only biomechanics Mullen worried about was a player's gut, and in Fitzgerald, he felt he was looking at a playmaker.
It was the clips in between those shot-put passes that first gave Bulldogs assistant coach John Hevesy hope. Then Mullen took a peek and liked what he saw as well.
On the second clip of Fitzgerald's highlight tape, after that less-than-impressive first-down pass, you see the same skinny kid crouching under center. He takes the snap and executes the same triple-option offense. Except this time he keeps the ball himself. This time he's running toward the camera and you see his big 6-foot-5 frame come into full view. He's athletic, ducking past the edge of the defense and into open field. And then, just as a defender tries to cut him at the knees, he goes vertical, leaping over the defender before gathering himself to pick up a few extra yards.
"He had some talent," Mullen said.
He was raw, but as Mullen said, so was Dak. For that matter, so was Tebow and Alex Smith and every other successful quarterback he'd ever worked with. Fitzgerald's fundamentals didn't bother him. He had natural talent -- the things Mullen or any other coach couldn't teach.
With enough time and enough patience, he might make for a decent player one day.
And if Fitzgerald had any doubts, all he had to do was look at Dak Prescott to see how it was done.
You can ring a cowbell anywhere on Mississippi State's campus and find at least a half dozen coeds wearing Dak Prescott No. 15 jerseys within earshot.
Prescott isn't just a football star now, he's a celebrity, and the front man for national brands like Adidas and DIRECTV. And it's easy to understand why. His story reads like a fairy tale: unheralded player is overlooked by hometown team; goes to conference rival with no history of winning; lifts school to No. 1 ranking; becomes everyone's All-American. The story even repeated itself in the NFL as general managers and coaches turned their nose up at his lack of so-called measurables. Underestimated yet again, the 135th pick in the 2016 draft went on to become a starter for the Dallas Cowboys and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But the underdog narrative is ultimately too tidy, too incomplete. It omits a three-year window in between Prescott signing with Mississippi State and him becoming a star. Unaccounted for is the presence of the persistent, detail-obsessed Dan Mullen looking over Prescott's shoulder, pecking away at his mechanics and decision-making.
Mullen, for all his self-deprecating charm in front of the cameras, is not always an easy person to deal with. He likes to push his quarterbacks' buttons and challenge them on the field and in team meeting rooms. There might be two quarterbacks alive that have "arrived" in his mind, and they're future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Even today, Mullen looks at Prescott and sees a very raw product. To a lesser extent, he says the same of 12-year NFL veteran Smith.
"I have a pretty high standard of expectations for them," Mullen explained. "So I'm hard on all of them because I want it to be perfect."
That's what drew Prescott, and then Fitzgerald, to Mullen. He told Fitzgerald during a recruiting visit, "Hey, you're going to have to work your butt off. You're not going to like me most days. That's OK. I'm going to coach you as hard as I possibly can."
Fitzgerald nodded along, waited for Mullen to finish and asked where he should sign up.
"There's no doubt he's not going to tell you what you want to hear," he said.
Even still, Fitzgerald's first two years on campus were difficult. Mullen and then-QB coach Brian Johnson "attacked" his fundamentals, he said, picking out all the things wrong with his throwing motion. Already somewhat inaccurate to begin with, he became even more so. There were days, he said, when he didn't even want to look at Mullen.
But with time, it clicked. Or, as Fitzgerald put it, it was hammered into place.
"Everything had to be broken down, reshaped kind of in his image, you can say."
He's far from a finished product now, of course, but it's a night-and-day difference from where he was when he first set foot on campus in 2014. At home, he'll spend an extra 10 minutes every day simply running through his throwing motion. In his living room, with no one around and not a football in sight, he'll make sure his feet are pointed in the right direction and his follow-through is correct to create muscle memory. He pays close attention to his non-throwing arm which, coming out of high school, he was barely cognizant that it had anything to do with the velocity and accuracy of his passes.
"I would say with quarterbacks with the light coming on, it's not always a switch, it's kind of like a dimmer. Like mood lighting. And you can control it and it gets brighter and dimmer based on how you control it. But his is starting to get brighter."Dan Mullen
Last season, his first as a starter, he managed to lead the SEC in total offense despite completing just 54.3 percent of his passes. Three games into the 2017 season, the redshirt junior is up to 61.4 percent. He's still a true dual threat -- since the start of 2016, he's the only FBS quarterback with six games of multiple passing and rushing touchdowns -- but his yards per attempt are up and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is down.
Has the light come on for Fitzgerald? Not exactly, according to Mullen.
"Which light?" he said, grinning. "It's coming. It's getting brighter. I would say with quarterbacks with the light coming on, it's not always a switch, it's kind of like a dimmer. Like mood lighting. And you can control it and it gets brighter and dimmer based on how you control it. But his is starting to get brighter."
Fitzgerald's best moment -- dare we say, his brightest moment -- during last Saturday's win over LSU wasn't a long touchdown pass or an electrifying run. It was, of all things, a little 3-yard dump pass into the flat.
That, ultimately, is the measuring stick for a Dan Mullen-coached quarterback.
You see, Mullen isn't much of a risk-taker. Although he'll show you the proper throwing motion and he'll teach you how to throw it deep, he doesn't order you to take shots downfield. There are no big plays in his playbook, only the correct play.
And Saturday night, on third-and-11 from the MSU 45-yard line, the correct play wasn't what you might expect. Leading 10-7 with 2 minutes, 34 seconds left in the first half, Mullen called a time out. A three-and-out would have let the 12th-ranked Tigers go into halftime feeling good about themselves. A score might be the final dagger.
Coming out of the break, Fitzgerald lined up in the shotgun with three receivers out wide. The snap was terrible -- about two feet to his right -- but he snagged it with one hand, steadied himself in the pocket and watched as two LSU linebackers showed blitz. But only one of them rushed and the other let tight end Farrod Green slip out into the flat. Fitzgerald saw it right away, flicked the ball out to Green, who caught it and ran upfield for a 22-yard gain and a first down.
It was simple, ordinary even. And Mullen absolutely loved it. A few plays later, on second-and-goal, Fitzgerald faked the handoff to his running back, rolled left and dove into the end zone for his second rushing touchdown of the game.
"The saying has always been 'Chicks dig the long ball,'" Fitzgerald said. "[Mullen will] say that then he'll look at you and say, 'But look at the guys in the NFL who have beautiful wives, beautiful girlfriends, and they check the ball down 95 percent of the time.' So obviously the really good-looking girls, they like the check downs."
Said Mullen: "He's got a ways to go. But he has a great skill set in which to do it. He has the talent to do it. It's just honing that talent -- probably over the next five years."
Yes, you read that correctly: five years. That's the trajectory as Mullen sees it.
But you'll have to forgive others if they don't take quite the same long view.
As far as Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is concerned, how Fitzgerald does against his defense on Saturday in Athens, Georgia, (ESPN & ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET)) is all that matters. And given the fact that Georgia overlooked him on the recruiting trail, maybe he should be worried.
Fitzgerald grew up a diehard Georgia fan and went to football camps there every year he was in high school. He spoke to coaches, but no scholarship offer ever came.
Granted, Smart wasn't the head coach at the time, but even so he recruited the state while an assistant at Alabama and he missed on Fitzgerald just the same.
"He was kind of under the radar," Smart said. "Just goes again to show what Dan has been able to do with quarterbacks. 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."
As for Fitzgerald, all he'll say is that he and Georgia didn't connect. "They didn't want me," he explained. "It's how it happens."
For now, he'll keep his motivation bottled up. But don't be surprised if it spills over between the hedges, an overlooked recruit from an underdog program facing one of the conference's blue bloods.
Georgia can have its pair of five-star quarterbacks. As long as Mullen can turn three-stars into bona fide superstars, it doesn't make any difference to Mississippi State.