Photo by Robert Smith

​Mike Justice is convinced quarterback Garrett Shrader has a chance to be special.

​“I saw him throw some deep out routes this season. Some he connected on, some he didn’t. But a lot of people can’t make that throw,” said Justice, the longtime Mississippi high school coach who retired in 2012 with 297 victories and four state championships. “That throw completely separates the quarterbacks.”

​As a true freshman out of Charlotte, N.C., Shrader played in 10 games for Mississippi State this season. His stats were solid: 88 of 153 passing for 1,170 yards and 8 touchdowns. He threw 5 interceptions.

Photo by Robert Smith

​Shrader also ran for 587 yards and 6 TDs.

​But the numbers hardly tell the whole story of the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with a wooly beard. He showed a coolness far beyond his 19 years whenever coach Joe Moorhead let him play. Graduate transfer Tommy Stevens was the primary quarterback. 

​In four starts, Shrader was 2-2 with victories over Kentucky and Ole Miss. Unless there were injuries I’m not aware of, I’m wondering why Shrader didn’t start more games for the 6-6 Bulldogs.  He clearly is the future of the program on offense.

​And that is what this story was supposed to be about: The beginning of a new era of Mississippi State football with Shrader making the start in Monday’s Music City Bowl against Louisville (3 p.m., ESPN).  

​That changed abruptly when word leaked that Shrader had been injured in a fight with a teammate after a recent practice.

​Shrader won’t play at all because he suffered damage to the bones around one of his eyes. 

​Moorhead would only say that Shrader had “an upper body injury.” Technically, I guess, he’s correct. 

​But many questions remain unanswered concerning the incident. The most obvious: Will the player who struck Shrader play in the bowl game?​ If so, why? No suspension has been mentioned by Moorhead, and I’m not the only one puzzled by that. 

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​Hopefully, Shrader recovers completely and takes the reins of the offense during spring practice. 

​That would be a dandy scenario for the Bulldogs, said Justice in an interview with

​“For a true freshman to come in and play like he has … I just don’t think people realize how hard that is,” Justice said . “A lack of knowledge creates a lack of confidence. You can’t be prepared and make all the reads you need to make when you haven’t had many reps. 

​“And State’s receiving corps is mediocre at best. They’re not going to make the tough catches. But it never looked like Shrader panicked. 

​“The guy has all the tools to be good at this. He just needs snaps and time.”

​Langston Wertz Jr., a writer with the Charlotte Observer newspaper, covered Shrader’s career at Charlotte Christian School, when he quarterbacked the Knights to a 31-3 record and two state championships.

​“Dude was fearless,” Wertz said during a phone interview with “You remember the hit (Shrader) took this year (against Kansas  State) where he was trying to get a first down and he leaped and wound up doing a 360 when he got hit? That was an every week thing in high school.

​“He was a talented passer, but he wanted to run the ball. He wanted to be a freight train. He never minded sticking his nose in there.”

​Wertz said Shrader was “as prepared as someone can be to play in the SEC his freshman year,” He went on to explain that Charlotte Christian, a private school where NBA star Stephen Curry attended, offers a unique football program.

​Its football staff has included several former NFL stars through the years, including Joe Jacoby (Washington Redskins), John Kasay (Carolina Panthers), Pete Metzelaars (Buffalo Bills) and Eugene Robinson (Atlanta Falcons).

​Head coach Jason Estep is a former strength and conditioning coach with Major League baseball’s Kansas City Royals.

Photo by Robert Smith

​“Shrader received great coaching and Coach Estep is innovative with his strength program,” Wertz said. “(Shrader) was always tall, but he transformed his body the last two years in high school.

​“He really enjoyed a great career here. He played in a lot of big games, had a lot of big moments when the outcome of the game fell on his shoulders.

​“One thing about that guy — he always seems to come through in the clutch.