Nick Mullens wasn't on the quarterback depth chart in spring practice, mostly because he was a seventeen-year old high school student in Alabama. While most of the players around him now were lifting weights and studying new head coach Todd Monken's schemes, Mullens was more worried about passing his final exams than passing a football.
That changed mighty quickly once he joined the program over the summer, effectively working his way up the depth chart over four other quarterbacks to claim back-up duty by the time the season began in August. Now Mullens is tasked with replacing sixth-year senior transfer Allan Bridgford, who Monken has benched in favor of his younger, more mobile freshman QB.
So how hard will it be for an eighteen-year old college freshman to command the respect and admiration of a group of guys who haven't won a game since 2011? That answer is what makes this situation so fascinating and unique.
"It's just a growing process. You try to get the respect of your teammates as fast as you can when you become the starter real quick so that's what I'm trying to do and just get the team better," Mullens said. "Really just bonding together as a team, that's what we've got to do to stay strong in the season."
Mullens has only been in the locker room for a couple of months but he has now been handed the reins to an offense struggling to do pretty much anything right through its first six games. Bridgford has thrown 11 interceptions already and the Golden Eagles are 122nd in the nation in scoring offense, averaging a mere 12.5 points per game.
The coaching staff is looking for something - anything - to get the offensive side of the ball going. They think they've found their spark in Nick Mullens.
"As an offense we really try to stress tempo and we've kind of slacked in that but as a quarterback you got to lead them and just pick it up so I've been focusing on that and just making sure everyone is still bought in," Mullens said. "It's a tough challenge what we're up against but as long as we're bought in and giving our best then that's what we're gonna do."
A tough challenge indeed, but one the former Spain Park High School star has come to relish as he attempts to revitalize a unit that has been one of the worst in college football this season. Mullens plans on doing just that with two key attributes that are as important to him as they are to the team.
"Two (things) that I really value (about myself are) being a leader and being accurate," Mullens said. "They always say you can't defend a perfect ball so that's' what I try and do and just be a leader for my team."
Many would say the former starter lacked both of those qualities, as his quiet demeanor and propensity to throw to the other team have shown. Mullens is almost the exact opposite: a spirited leader who prides himself on pinpoint precision and collected confidence. Just because he's young doesn't mean he's afraid to get the juices flowing.
"You ease into it but then again, once you're out there, you've got to make plays and lead your team," he said. "It might get annoying being a vocal leader but it's got to be said so that's what I'm gonna do and motivate my teammates."
Mullens' solid performance against East Carolina last week helped harness that confidence while showing fans what he is capable of when the pressure is on. While he considers himself a pocket passer, Mullens' ability to escape the rush and extend plays with his legs are things Southern Miss has been desperately missing.
"I just make a play. If I have pressure I get out of the pocket. I honestly view myself as more of a pocket passer but I just make a play when it needs to be made," he said. "The more playing time you get the more confident you get. East Carolina helped me and I know what it's like to be out there so I think the nerves will be cool on Saturday and I'm just real excited for it."
It would be easy for someone so young to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of being named the starting quarterback, but that's not what Nick Mullens is all about. The freshman from Hoover, Ala. is just trying to lead his team to a victory, and he'll get his shot much sooner than he thought.
"It's a great opportunity to go out and represent Southern Miss," Mullens said. "But at the same time you've got to keep a level head and just worry about football and that's what I'm doing."