BRISTOL, Conn. – Dan Mullen remains uncertain about how his quarterback competition will shake out, but the Mississippi State coach is clear on this much: He gave all four contenders a legitimate opportunity to replace Dak Prescott.
“I was really pleased with how Brian [Johnson, Mississippi State’s quarterbacks coach] handled the spring because I met with all four guys individually,” Mullen said Monday during his appearance at the SEC "car wash” media tour at ESPN headquarters. “The first question I asked them: ‘Do you feel you were given a fair opportunity at winning the job this spring?’ All of them said yes, so I think he did a great job of managing the different reps that way, which is not easy to do with four guys.”
When preseason camp opens in two weeks, Mullen and Johnson’s challenge is to hone in on their ultimate starter – and to be as even-handed in doing so as they were in the spring.
It won’t be easy, especially with so many players in the mix. Quarterbacks’ egos can be fragile, and disappointment is inevitable when the Bulldogs’ depth chart becomes clear. However, Mullen said he is confident that each quarterback will be able to admit that the most consistent performer won the job.
“I don’t think we’ll have any feelings hurt because everyone will feel they were given the opportunity,” Mullen said. “Because I also asked all four of them, ‘Do you feel you won the job this spring? Do you feel hands-down you are the guy?’ And all of them said, ‘You know what, certain days I think I did’ – which I said, ‘I agree with you’ – and ‘certain days I didn’t’ – which ‘I agree with you again.’ ”
Veteran Damian Williams was arguably the most consistent performer this spring, but it would be premature to project him as the starter ahead of competitors Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley or Nick Tiano.
Other members of the group possess skills that are closer to the dual-threat abilities that made Prescott especially dangerous. However, Williams is the most experienced, and Mullen said he would be comfortable rotating quarterbacks situationally if necessary.
“I’ve played multiple quarterbacks before. I have no problem doing that,” Mullen said. “I think it’s much easier to play multiple quarterbacks when they do different things. Back at Florida, you have Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. That’s an easy combination. At Mississippi State when you had Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott, kind of as a young guy coming in as a little bit of a runner, that’s a lot easier than trying to play quarterbacks who do the same thing.”
The important thing for everyone’s best interest, Mullen said, is to be clear about where everyone stands when he and Johnson arrive at their conclusion. Williams is a fourth-year junior who is nearing the finish line for his college career, but Fitzgerald and Staley are redshirt sophomores and Tiano is a redshirt freshman.
Perhaps the contenders who end up on the bottom half of the depth chart will decide that they ultimately have a better chance to play at a different program. That’s where Mullen believes communication will be key between his staff and the quarterbacks.
“I don’t think all four of them will be there at this time next year just because of the uniqueness of the position,” Mullen said. “You have four guys and none of them are seniors, so someone’s going to want to play when we do that. So I think the benefit for everybody -- it helps the kids and I want to help the guys out, if we can figure out who the guy is, and everybody can make decisions off of that.”
Selecting a Game 1 starter is only the first step in that decision-making process, though. With an injury here or an inadequate play there, the depth chart could look completely different at some point this fall. The Bulldogs have to start somewhere, and Mullen hopes at least one of his quarterbacks manages to seize the playing time that remains available at the position when practice begins next month.
“[There are] our guys that played really well in spring -- played well enough that you could make an argument for each one of the four. Out of four guys, no one played good enough that it was like, ‘That’s the guy,’ ” Mullen said. “And so to me moving forward, I challenged them this: I would love to know within the first 10 days of training camp who the guy is, only because they’ve separated themselves over the summer. Who’s the one that just outworked the other three guys this summer to be the guy?
“If that didn’t happen, it could go to Game 1, it could go to Game 3, it could go all season.”