Why you should care
Because no one saw Lamar Jackson coming.
Today’s college football machine thrives on passers, but annual roster turnover turns stability into a fickle beast. With Deshaun Watson and Mitch Trubisky snapped up by the NFL, 2017–2018 looks to be one of the most exciting seasons of college quarterback play in recent memory. The Heisman winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) and one finalist (Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield) return, as do potential All-Americans at powerhouse programs across the country. But in West Virginia and Mississippi, two potential breakout stars boasting NFL talent and similar skill sets have arrived on staunchly different paths. Will Grier and Nick Fitzgerald can run, they can throw, and they’re both fighting an uphill battle for success.
The Will Grier Redemption Tour
When West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen called his former pupil Jake Spavital, recruiting the former quarterback coach back to Morgantown was no easy task. Spavital had been named offense coordinator, then interim head coach, at Cal. But Holgorsen’s pitch was simple: Come coach Will Grier. “Dana said, ‘Listen, you’re going to have some fun calling plays for this kid,’” Spavital tells OZY. “That was a big selling point for me.”
In Grier, the Mountaineers have a dual-threat, surefire NFL prospect with Heisman Trophy hopes. Week 1 marks his first game since 2015, when, as a freshman at Florida, he led his team to a 6-0 start before earning a one-year NCAA suspension for a positive performance-enhancing-drug test. After transferring to West Virginia, Grier spent last season “learning the culture that Dana has created and learning the spread offense,” says Spavital. What’s more, he earned the trust of his team. “More than X’s and O’s, Will knows how to galvanize a team,” Spavital adds. “His teammates really want to play for him.”
West Virginia offenses have always put up big numbers. The arrival of Holgorsen and his spread offense in 2011 only amplified that truth, heightening expectations as the Mountaineers rolled through the old Big East conference. But since joining the Big 12 — where opponents like Oklahoma and Baylor easily keep pace on offense — in 2012, West Virginia has hovered around a .500 winning percentage. Last year brought a surprise breakthrough, as now-departed quarterback Skyler Howard led the team to a 10-3 record and No. 18 ranking.
Grier has big shoes to fill, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expects that to be an issue. Spavital notes that it has been clear that Grier was “the guy” since he stepped on campus. In other words, there was no offseason QB competition in Morgantown. As CBS Sports Network College Football Analyst Houston Nutt puts it, Grier is an accurate playmaker who’s ready to take off: “Florida was a different team with Grier on the field. He’ll be a good fit in Dana’s offense.”
Praise for Grier’s talent and leadership abilities doesn’t square with his past transgressions. Why would a player so gifted, so respected by his peers and committed to success risk his career by popping PEDs? No one in Grier’s circle offers up answers, but the truth is probably simple. Grier says that his positive test resulted from taking an over-the-counter supplement, Ligandrol, which he didn’t know had been banned by the NCAA and which he failed to clear with team trainers. When he arrived on Florida’s campus, he was a highly touted but also undersized recruit. After one redshirt year, Grier added 22 pounds. In his quest to gain enough strength to compete in the bruising SEC, a mistake was made. “Nothing really phases Will,” says Spavital. “But I guarantee [not being able to play] was eating at him.”
Now, he has a fresh start. Originally slated to regain eligibility in Week 7, Grier won an appeal to play immediately this season. The news has Morgantown buzzing that a Big 12 title is doable. It’ll be a reach, but the conference’s fast-paced, spread-oriented style of play will be an invitation to Grier to shine like never before.
Days before the Mountaineers Week 1 matchup with Virginia Tech, the Will Grier redemption tour kicks into high gear.
Is Nick Fitzgerald the Next Dak Prescott?
What if I told you that the best prospect in the SEC was not a lightning-quick tailback or an era-defining hybrid defenseman, but an underrated quarterback with a losing record at Mississippi State?
OK, best prospect in the SEC is a stretch, but Nick Fitzgerald is picking up steam as the most promising quarterback prospect in the league. Sure, Alabama super-sophomore Jalen Hurts is brilliant to watch, and Arkansas’ Austin Allen remains in contention, but Fitzgerald has the size, speed and arm strength that leaves NFL scouts drooling. Oh, and he logged massive numbers with little talent around him in 2016. “Mississippi State had a ton of injuries last year, but Fitzgerald kept them competitive,” says Nutt. “He’s the total package running and throwing the ball, and now he has confidence.”
A redshirt junior, Fitzgerald arrived in Starkville in 2014 as a three-star recruit. Nothing to scoff at, but three-star status is the shallow end of the talent pool in the SEC. The Georgia native’s only other scholarship offer came from Middle Tennessee State. Still, Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen saw promise in the 6′5″, 200-pound (now 225) teenager. Fitzgerald redshirted in 2014, then served as current Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott’s backup in 2015. Last season, with Prescott off to the NFL, Mullen set Fitzgerald loose. His accuracy (54 percent passing percentage) left much to be desired, but Fitzgerald was wildly productive against stingy SEC defenses: over 2,400 yards and 21 touchdowns passing, plus another 1,385 yards and 16 scores on the ground. “He really is fun to watch,” says Nutt. “Those last four or five games, he really took off.”
Mississippi State was blown out by Alabama 51-3 in November, but the Bulldogs went 3-1 in the other four of those final five games, averaging 43.5 points per contest. A regular season-ending 55-20 victory over rival Ole Miss, in which Fitzgerald totaled 370 yards and five scores, left many fans believing that 2017 could be a year to remember in Starkville. A belief that’s not unwarranted: Though the Bulldogs went 6-7 last season, they won four of their last six games, and four of their losses came down to one score or less. With a healthier, more built-out offense around Fitzgerald, a strong rebound is altogether possible.