A football player looks for an opponent to block
During his Missouri State career, Ian Fitzgerald (65) has played for six offensive line coaches while seeing the lows, highs and in-betweens of the program. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Ian Fitzgerald has been a study of patience and perseverance during his time in Missouri State’s football program. Few players can speak with his experience.

The fifth-year junior offensive tackle from Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, saw the program bottom out, rise under a new coaching regime and now navigate a bumpy fall.

He’s played for six different offensive line coaches in his career, which at the least is dizzying if not downright confusing.

Keeping a positive mindset

Through it all, the 6-foot-5, 299-pound Fitzgerald has maintained a positive mindset and kept grinding to be the best he can be.

“My experience here,” a smiling Fitzgerald began when asked to summarize his college playing career since arriving at Missouri State in the fall of 2018. “I was recruited out of high school with Stec (Coach Dave Steckel) and we were 4-8 my first year, then 1-10 the next.

“Then came Covid and they got fired. (Bobby) Petrino comes in and we get the taste of winning. We’re just trying to get back to winning now. 

“It’s been one hell of a ride.”

Fitzgerald has helped solidify offensive line

The offensive line has struggled as a unit to protect quarterback Jason Shelley so far this season, surrendering 29 sacks through six games. But Petrino said Fitzgerald has done his part to solidify things — just as he’s done since breaking into the starting lineup for the 2021 spring season.

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“Ian’s having a really good year for us,” Petrino said. “He has done a nice job on the edge. When you line up at tackle, a lot of times it’s one-on-one out there and sometimes you have to block the blitzer.

“His communication and ability to help the guard is something we’ve needed. He’s a really good football player. He’s been here since I came in and he’s done a good job.”

State champion pedigree

The graduate of Lake Zurich High helped his team win the Illinois Class 7A state championship his senior season while earning all-area and all-conference honors. He came to Missouri State and played in one game in 2018 before redshirting.

Fitzgerald played in four games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 as the Bears went 1-10 before the coaching change. But the changes he was seeing already had been taking place and have continued, with Max Haplin, arriving in 2021, his sixth offensive line coach.

“The one thing I stayed consistent throughout my years was working with my strength and fitness,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the one thing I can really control, aside from the coaching staff going in and out.”

Fitzgerald on sixth position coach

As for how he’s handled six offensive line coaches during his college career, Fitzgerald said he’s tried to take care of his business and focus on positives from each.

“I really have to just focus on what I can control and that’s my body — as well as mental,” Fitzgerald said. “Just mentally preparing for changes and adapting to whatever comes my way.

“At this point, it’s just an accumulation of the best points of what everyone has told me over the years. It’s tough to cancel out everything that you’ve learned so far, especially being a fifth-year starter. Yeah, it’s tough but you just have to keep adapting and keep going.”

A quarterback gets ready to throw the ball while his linemen block
Ian Fitzgerald (65) has seen plenty of change since arriving at Missouri State in 2018. He’s been a key member of the offensive line throughout. (Photo: Patty Ingalls/Missouri State Athletics)

This Bears team is nothing like 2018

And this season’s four-game losing streak, while a huge letdown after preseason national-title hopes, seems like nothing compared to the feeling of desperation before Petrino arrived.

“Compared to that team in 2018, this team is way better, light years ahead as far as talent, players and the coaching staff in play calling,” he said. “We have all the pieces. We can put points on the board. 

“It’s just making sure it goes from the first quarter to the fourth quarter and being consistent.”

Getting back on the winning path

The Bears look to get back on the winning path Saturday at Northern Iowa. Keeping Shelley upright will be a priority. Fitzgerald believes the offensive line cleared its collective mind during last week’s bye week and is ready to finish the season strong.

“A big part is re-setting our mentality,” Fitzgerald said. “Getting the long weekend, not having to worry about traveling, it really let everyone relax, calm down and get a little reset. We’re ready to get back on the right track.”

Ian Fitzgerald at a glance

Position: Offensive tackle

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 299 pounds

Year: Fifth-year junior (redshirt in 2018, extra season of eligibility due to Covid-19)

Accolades: Named to Missouri State Athletic Director’s Honor Roll for Spring 2022 semester. … Started all 12 games in 2021 fall season, allowing just one sack. … Started all six games in 2021 spring season with a 97-percent assignment grade. … Started final four games of 2019 season.

Personal: Majoring in Advertising and Promotion. … Son of Dennis and Carolyn Fitzgerald of Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, and has three brothers and three sisters.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton