Led by senior quarterback Nick Mullens and junior running back Ito Smith, Southern Miss joined Clemson as the only FBS programs to return a 4,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher from last season.
The Alabama natives have continued to put up huge numbers this year after making the Maxwell Award preseason watch list. Mullens ranks 20th in the country in passing (291.1 yards per game) and 22nd in touchdown passes (17), while Smith is 14th in rushing (114.4 ypg) and 16th in all-purpose yards (147.5 ypg).
Their play has the Golden Eagles (5-3) in rare company as one of three FBS teams with a player in the top-20 nationally in passing, rushing and all-purpose yards.
“Our success is a credit to the work we all put in on the field and in the film room,” Mullens said. “We focus on the details and love the game of football. I remember an old interview Ito did a long time ago saying you should come to practice every day and compete like you’re trying to earn a starting spot.
“That’s always stuck in the back of my mind, and it’s how we attack practice.”
Last week their approach paid off in a big way in a 24-14 win over Conference USA rival Marshall. Smith rushed for 140 yards and two TDs, and Mullens threw for 300 yards and one score and became the school’s all-time passing leader.
It was Smith’s fifth 100-yard effort of the season and his 13th straight game with a TD.
“Ito’s a player, and sometimes he can make something out of nothing,” said first-year Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson. “You look in there and think it’s toast, and all of a sudden he sticks his foot in the turf and jets out the other side. Ito’s a guy who makes plays and is a tough, physical back who can run inside, outside, pass protect and catch it out of the backfield.”
Smith’s 11-yard catch in the second quarter helped Mullens set the program record for career passing yards (11,057). Mullens also established a new school mark for 200-yard games (33) and extended the Southern Miss record for 300-yard games (16).
“Nobody deserves it more than Nick,” Hopson said. “He’s a guy who has been a true soldier at Southern Miss and is a guy who is going to give you 100 percent every day. He’s just got that ‘it’ factor and is a quarterback. He’s a leader, a competitor and is what you want in a football player.”
The path for Mullens to Southern Miss had some twists and turns along the way. He committed to Jacksonville State after being named the state of Alabama’s Gatorade Player of the Year and throwing for 3,649 yards and 40 TDs as a senior, but the JSU coaching staff was fired a few hours later.
Mullens then committed to UAB only to flip his commitment to Southern Miss, which had a new head coach in Todd Monken. The Golden Eagles had just finished 0-12 in Ellis Johnson’s lone season leading the program.
“Southern Miss offered after I committed to UAB, and I couldn’t refuse,” Mullens said. “It had a great business school and an offense that suited my game and a winning tradition. I grew up watching Southern Miss and was really excited about helping bring the program back.”
It took some time to bring back the Golden Eagles. In his first year on campus Mullens started the final six games and made the 2013 C-USA All-Freshman Team as Southern Miss went 1-11.
The following season the Golden Eagles added Smith, who rushed for 1,803 yards and 24 TDs as a senior for Alabama Class 6A state semifinalist McGill-Toolen. Smith had also been recruited by Georgia Tech, Duke and several other C-USA schools.
“It felt like home,” Smith said of Southern Miss. “When I came here, it was like a brotherhood. It was also close to home, and that was a factor.”
In their first season together, Mullens passed for 2,470 yards and 12 TDs as a sophomore and Smith started the last half of his freshman year and finished with 835 all-purpose yards. The Golden Eagles improved their win total by two from the previous year to 3-9.
Last season Southern Miss completed the turnaround by going 9-5, winning the C-USA West Division title and earning its first bowl berth since 2011. Mullens was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and set several single-season school marks, including passing yards (4,476) and TD passes (38).
Smith rushed for a team-best 1,128 yards and 10 TDs and added 515 receiving yards and three scores on 49 catches to garner second-team all-league honors.
Southern Miss entered this season with a new coach in Hopson, who won 32 games and two SWAC titles in four years at Alcorn State, after Monken left to become offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs.
The Golden Eagles opened the Hopson era with a comeback win at Kentucky as Mullens accounted for four TDs and Smith rushed for 173 yards and another score. In Week 2 against Savannah State, Smith had an 86-yard TD run that was the longest rush in M.M. Roberts Stadium history.
Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) plays Charlotte (3-5, 2-2) Saturday on ASN. Once again, the Golden Eagles will be led by Mullens and Smith, two productive players with very different personalities.
“One of the great things about playing college sports is being able to meet so many people from different backgrounds and working for a common goal,” Mullens said. “Ito is a real quiet guy but leads by example and handles his business like a pro. I just try to get to know my guys because they won’t follow you if they don’t know you. I want to help us get better.”
It took a while, but Smith said Mullens is now a friend as well as a teammate.
“The longer I’ve been here, the closer we’ve become,” Smith said. “We didn’t talk much my freshman year, but we’re both from Alabama and have gotten really close this year. He’s a positive guy and a positive individual to be around. He’s my boy.”