Somehow, Nick Mullens knew that days like last Saturday were possible.
A day when Southern Mississippi’s quarterback threw for a school-record 591 yards (not to mention four touchdowns) in a 44-28 victory over Rice.
A day when six of his passes were caught by wide receiver Allenzae Staggers, covering 292 yards (another school record) and resulting in TDs of 75, 81 and 93 yards.
Somehow the QB who sees the whole field also saw the big picture four years ago. How else do you explain Mullens committing to the Golden Eagles, even though they were coming off an 0-12 season? How else do you explain him keeping the faith, even as the team went 4-20 his first two years on campus?
“Growing up, I knew Southern Miss was a winning program,” he said. “Southern Miss always wins.”
And indeed, that was true. The Eagles enjoyed 18 consecutive winning seasons from 1994 to 2011, tasting victory in eight bowl games along the way. And before that, the school gave rise to one Brett Favre, a guy with whom Mullens has crossed paths during his time in Hattiesburg.
Still, there was that 0-12 finish in 2012, in Ellis Johnson’s lone season as head coach. Mullens, a native of Hoover, Ala. (and the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior), nonetheless made a verbal commitment to USM on Jan. 27, 2013, roughly six weeks after Johnson’s successor, Todd Monken, was hired.
“My thought process was, we’re going to win eventually,” Mullens said. “I mean, I’m going to go to Southern Miss and we’re going to win eventually. It’s just a matter of time, and putting in the hours. (The losing) never really fazed me, so to be where we’re at now is somewhat of an expectation.”
The Eagles went 9-5, won the Conference USA West Division and played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last year, Monken’s final season on the job. He has since moved on to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator, while being succeeded by former Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson.
No matter. Southern Miss is 4-1 heading into a game against UTSA Saturday on ASN.
Mullens, the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 and the preseason Offensive Player of the Year this fall, has clicked on 60.7 percent of his passes to date, for 1,504 yards and 13 touchdowns, with seven interceptions.
And he has never been better than he was last Saturday. He kind of had an idea that was coming, too.
As he put it, “We knew we were going to have some opportunities (for big plays). It was just a matter of getting the right play against the right look, and it felt really good. The O-line did great and players made plays. That’s what makes football fun.”
Especially for Staggers.
“He just ran great routes, got past his defenders and made my job easy,” Mullens said. “All I had to do was throw it up and just let him go get it.”
That understates Mullens’ role in the process, though others have been only too happy to gush about him. Hopson, who once worked with future pros Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich while an assistant at Marshall, told the (Biloxi) Sun Herald earlier this season that Mullens “throws the ball as well as any quarterback I’ve been around.” And former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt told the Hattiesburg American he is “a strong (NFL) prospect.”
Mullens earned an invitation to the Manning Passing Academy this summer, after throwing for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns, both school records, in 2015. At that four-day clinic he tied for top honors among the 38 collegiate QBs present, including Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
“Those guys are huge names,” Mullens said, “but I wanted to prove myself.”
He has also benefitted from the counsel of Favre, who pops up on campus every now and then. Last year, Mullens recalled, the Pro Football Hall of Famer addressed the Eagles before a game, telling them that football was meant to be enjoyed, and that the essence of the sport was the one-on-one competition.
And this summer, Mullens worked out with Favre.
“He’s retired, but he can still sling it,” the younger man said.
So too can Mullens. But the bigger thing is his vision — the way he was able to see his way past the ’12 disaster, and see his way through his first two collegiate seasons. The Eagles went 1-11 his freshman year, beating UAB in their season finale to snap a 23-game losing streak. They were 3-9 in 2014, when Mullens missed three games with a torn ligament in his foot.
Now USM is back. Somehow he saw it coming all along.