FAB 2. Fitzgerald Hoping To Create His Own FitzMagic In Tampa Bay
Ryan Fitzpatrick is gone.
The former Bucs quarterback is now in Miami where he is battling Josh Rosen for the right to start for the Dolphins this year.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be anymore FitzMagic in Tampa Bay.
If undrafted free agent Nick Fitzgerald, a former star quarterback at Mississippi State, makes the team as a third-string QB and jack-of-all-trades athlete, he might make a different kind of FitzMagic for the Bucs the way specialty QB Taysom Hill does in New Orleans in certain packages for the Saints offense.
Fitzgerald, who was a dual threat for the Bulldogs where he broke Tim Tebow’s SEC career rushing record for a quarterback, won’t make the Bucs strictly as a quarterback. He’s more like Tebow or Collin Klein than he is DeShaun Watson or Cam Newton – mobile quarterbacks that are actually very good passers.
Fitzgerald completed 511-of-942 passes (54.2 percent) for 6,207 yards with 55 touchdowns and 30 interceptions as a three-year starter at Mississippi State. His best season as a passer came as a sophomore, in which he completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 2,423 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. As a senior, Fitzgerald completed just 51.6 percent of his passes for 1,767 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Those stats, specifically his low completion percentage, caused him to go undrafted and prompted NFL teams to want him to change positions to tight end where the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Fitzgerald could use his size and 4.64 speed to attack the defense with his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.
“When I got to the Combine, 12 or 13 teams – I couldn’t tell you which ones – but 12 to 13 teams approached my group leader and asked if I wanted to run some routes at tight end,” Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t just about tight end, it was to see both (quarterback and tight end), but at the time I hadn’t trained to do that. It kind of caught me off guard. I knew I would eventually I think I would be asked to do it, I just didn’t think it would be there.
“So I respectfully told them ‘no’ there, but I would be happy to do it at my pro day. After the Combine I worked on running routes and on my hands catching the ball. I hadn’t run a route since high school. If I was going to do it I was going to do it well so they could actually see my ability to play the position.”
Bucs coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht are experimenting with Fitzgerald to see if he could be a football player that could see action at tight end, contribute on special teams and be a third-team emergency quarterback that could actually dress on game days rather than be inactive like most third-string QBs. After seeing former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill shine in a utility role with the Saints over the last two years, the Bucs are trying to steal a page out of their NFC South rivals’ playbook.
In two years in New Orleans, Hill has rushed 37 times for 196 yards (5.3 avg.) and two touchdowns, while catching three passes for four yards on offense. Hill, who rushed for 2,815 yards and 32 touchdowns as a dual threat QB at BYU, has also returned 14 kickoffs for 348 yards (24.9 avg.) on special teams with the Saints.
“Throughout the entire Combine process that was always the comparison, that was always the person that was brought up was him,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he did open the door for big, athletic quarterbacks that teams want to get on the field somehow to utilize them at a different position. I’ve seen some of his game film and it’s pretty impressive what he’s able to do.”
Fitzgerald had two 1,000 yards rushing seasons at Mississippi State, first as a sophomore with 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 7.1 yards per carry, and then last year with 1,121 yards and 13 TDs, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Last season, Fitzgerald broke Tebow’s SEC career QB rushing record with 3,607 yards and 46 touchdowns, while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
While Hill is used most often as a Wildcat quarterback in short yardage situations, the Bucs plan to make Fitzgerald more versatile and use him as an H-back or flex tight end.
“I think I have the height for it, and I think I have the athleticism and the vertical jump,” Fitzgerald said. “I think if I get down there in the trenches I need to put on a little bit of weight. Otherwise I think I have the size, the speed, the capability, the hands to go out and have fun and play any position and maybe catch a touchdown pass.”
The plan is for Fitzgerald to get some work at both tight end and quarterback in training camp and the preseason. But he’ll have his best chance to make the Bucs’ 53-man roster by playing well on special teams, specifically as the team’s personal protector, which is one of the most important positions because that player calls out the protections for the punt team.
“I’m getting reps as the personal protector on punts, I’m getting some reps as the off returner on kickoff return, and I’m getting some reps on kickoff,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe I’ll even get on punt return. We’ll see. But right now that’s where I’m working. I feel comfortable and feel like I can have some success.
“Being an off returner if they kick one short, I would love to return a kick. That’s always a positive. Every position they have me on special teams I’m comfortable with and I think I can do well at.”
When Bucs camp begins on July 26 no one will have a more rigorous training camp than Fitzgerald who will have to split time between the quarterback and tight end meeting rooms, as well as participating in all of the special teams meetings, too.
“It definitely is a work load on top of learning all the special teams and all your calls from your P.P. (personal protector),” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a lot. I feel like I am back to being 17 at a freshman camp trying to learn a playbook for the first time. It’s just about your work ethic. In college I watched a lot of film and always made sure I was prepared. It’s no different here other than I’m kind of splitting time between the two positions along with special teams.”
Fitzgerald’s chances of making the team don’t necessarily lie on beating out third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin. Instead, he has to show some worth as an emergency quarterback, but also make some plays in the preseason as a running QB and a specialty tight end, in addition to proving that he can be a valuable and reliable special teamer.
Keep an eye on No. 7 in training camp.
Fitzgerald will be hard to miss, and not just because he’ll have an orange quarterback jersey on while playing tight end or special teams.
It’s because he won’t be coming off the practice field.