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This is a big season for Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald and it got off to red-flagged start with a one-game suspension (violation of team rules). However, in the two games since sitting out Week 1 versus Stephen F. Austin, Fitzgerald has shown exactly why he is such an intriguing NFL prospect, passing for 397 yards, rushing for another 266, and accounting for 8 total TD.
From a scout’s perspective, Fitzgerald is a difficult player to stick a grade on or feel convicted about at this point because he has the size and athleticism that every team is looking for but his overall passing skill-set remains raw.
Looking back at my notes from fall camp, I was impressed by how Fitzgerald handled himself at practice. Over the course of his career at State, Fitzgerald has given scouts reason to question his maturity level (see suspension) but he was attentive with coaches and very interactive with his teammates throughout the night practice session that I attended.
From a physical standpoint, there might not be a better looking QB in the nation than Fitzgerald. He’s tall with long arms and an athletic build—exactly what most football people think an NFL quarterback should look like.
The unique thing he brings to the table as a scrambler and runner is the size factor. He is not going to dance and dodge like most average-sized athletic QB and he runs through as much contact as he avoids. Last week against the University of Louisiana, he had a couple of tough runs where looked fully back from the ankle injury he sustained in the Egg Bowl last November.
Right now, the thing that has NFL scouts most concerned is his overall accuracy. Over the past couple months, I have had the opportunity to see him throw live twice, first at the Manning Passing Camp back in June and then again in early August during fall camp, and both times I came away with more glass half-full than half-empty feelings. The ball does not come off his hand clean all the time and his placement, even just throwing routes on air, was still hit-or-miss, but there are enough flash throws that keep you interested.
Fundamental QB play starts from the ground up and Mississippi State offensive coaches say he is working hard on his foundation and overall footwork to improve his accuracy. If he can continue to get his lower-half cleaned up, Fitzgerald will take the next step as a passer.
Come draft time next Spring, there will undoubtedly be plenty of QB coaches or offensive coordinators around the league pounding the table to work with someone with Fitzgerald’s tools.
If Kentucky has any chance of slowing down Fitzgerald this week they will need to tackle well, especially on the edges where Fitzgerald does most of his damage on RPOs and true read-option runs. The Wildcats defense is led by true senior OLB Josh Allen. I have not seen Allen in-person yet but the scouts that I’ve talked to say he is an absolute specimen. Allen has packed on roughly 15 pounds of muscle since last season and the added weight has changed how scouts are projecting him.
A year ago, many evaluators that went into Lexington felt like Allen was just a sub-downs DPR (designated pass rusher) but that has all changed since he dedicated himself to getting heavier. Off ’17 tape, more than one scout described Allen as a “finesse” linebacker so adding mass and power to his game should help him shed that label.
The one knock scouts have is that some feel like his potential outweighs his production at this point in his career. While most love all the physical tools, some want to see a more consistently active and involved player.
Based off what I’m hearing, Allen should get drafted somewhere in the first three rounds of next April’s draft, mainly because of the versatility. Teams could plug him into any system (3-4 Jack or Buck, 4-3 Sam or Will) and he has the length and athleticism to cover or rush off the edge.
Playing in the Reese’s Senior Bowl is a great showcase for highly athletic players like Allen because all the 1-on-1 drills are designed to highlight the physical traits. To that point, Denver Broncos All-Pro Von Miller was a more highly rated prospect at Texas A&M but he solidified himself as a top-five pick by athletically dominating the competition in Mobile.
North Dakota State QB Easton Stick vs. Delaware S Nasir Adderley
While he doesn’t have the same physical tools as his predecessor, Carson Wentz, scouts are still intrigued by Stick because he’s a gamer and a winner. Adderley might be the top FCS prospect on the Reese's Senior Bowl radar.
Georgia C Lamont Gaillard vs. Missouri DT Terry Beckner Jr.
There are couple of big-time matchups in the game (Missouri QB Drew Lock vs. Georgia CB Deandre Baker) but we’ll go with likely Senior Bowl players Beckner Jr. versus Gaillard. Take your eye off the ball and focus them in the trenches when Georgia has the ball.
Virginia Tech T Yosuah Nijman vs. Old Dominion DE/OLB Oshane Ximines
Both of these players are getting buzz among scouts on the east coast. We had a chance to see Ximines last week at UNC-Charlotte and he was impressive. The athletic Nijman will probably be a Combine standout and he is putting it all together on the field.
Buffalo WR Anthony Johnson vs. Rutgers CB Blessaun Austin
Austin’s status for Saturday’s game is TBD because of a knee injury but if he plays it will be a good matchup on the perimeter with Johnson, who makes plays on a weekly basis for Buffalo.
Louisville WR Jaylen Smith vs. Virginia S/CB Juan Thornhill
Interesting matchup here between two players with good downfield ball skills.
Stanford LB Bobby Okereke vs. Oregon RB Tony Brooks-James
The Reese's Senior Bowl has seen Stanford twice already this year and Okereke’s speed and athleticism are obvious when you see him play live. He will have his hands full in space with the speedy Ducks running back.
Texas A&M DT Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack vs. Alabama interior OL Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton
The Reese's Senior Bowl will be at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday and the binoculars will be focused on these four senior players on our watch list.
TCU vs. Texas
A couple intriguing matchups; Texas OT Calvin Anderson against TCU edge players Ben Banogu and L.J. Collier. Texas CB Kris Boyd against explosive TCU WRs KaVontae Turpin and Jaelan Austin.
Minnesota LT Donnell Greene vs. Maryland OLB Jesse Aniebonam
This is an interesting contrast in styles between the powerful Greene and the mostly finesse yet highly athletic Aniebonam. The Terps’ Buck linebacker suffered a broken ankle in the ’17 season-opener but he had 9 sacks in ’16.
Michigan State RB L.J. Scott vs. Indiana S Jonathan Crawford
The Spartans need to get bruising RB Scott, who has only 103 yards (3.4 avg) through two games, rolling against the Hoosiers this week. Look for the hard-hitting Crawford to be in the box a lot on Saturday.
-- Jim Nagy, Reese's Senior Bowl Executive Director