Raise your hand if you won as many games as the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in 2012.
OK, go ahead and put ’em down.
Although on-field success isn’t always the make-or-break for a program in how many commits it rounds up in the subsequent class, it’s difficult not to admire the poise and patience of quarterback Nick Mullens.
Lightly pursued out of that 2013 class the 6-foot-1, pro-style quarterback garnered Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a senior at Spain Park. That feat uncommonly came ill-equipped with only a sprinkling of offers for Mullens, a two-star rated recruit.
Upon filtering through a pair of OVC offers (Murray State and Jacksonville State) as well as the Conference USA (UAB and Southern Mississippi) Mullens, of all places, opted to commit to the Golden Eagles, a then-decrepit program fresh off of an 0-12 season.
To make matters worse (at the time) Southern Mississippi had left a pink slip on head coach Ellis Johnson’s desk following that brutal stretch and summoned for a benefactor in Todd Monken. So not only was the former Gatorade Player of the Year lightly recruited and heading to a team that couldn’t scrape up a lone win the season prior to committing, but the program was under new leadership.
Lo and behold, the Monken-Mullens connection appeared to be a compatible match.
Coming over from Oklahoma State where he served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Pokes, Monken lugged his bag of tricks to Hattiesburg. His tutelage was evident when Mullens eased into the offense as a true freshman, starting the final six games and recording a touchdown in five of them while posting 1,659 yards.
Final result? 1-11.
OK, so not the most significant leap in college football history but progress is progress.
Mullens earned full-time duties the following season for the Golden Eagles and built off of the latter half of the 2013 campaign. Despite being absent for a pair of games due to injuries, he mustered 2,470 yards and 12 touchdowns, not to mention that the starting receivers were three-fourths comprised of underclassmen.
Final result? 3-9.
The progress was real, sort of. And then came Mullens’ junior season.
Two seasons of feet-soaking for the former two-star prospect set the stage for a masterpiece-type 2015 season. Monken, with two years under his belt, pieced the puzzle together and turned Mullens and Co. into a sheer vaunted unit.
The group as a whole finished the 2015 season with the No. 6 total offense behind Mullens, who threw for 4,467 yards and 38 touchdowns at a 63.5 percent clip. What appeared to be a one-man race for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year — an award that was set in stone for Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty — ultimately fell into the lap of Mullens as the feather in his cap.
Final result? 9-5, Conference USA runner-ups.
Egos in college football are unfortunately at an all-time high. Players who bolt for more playing time or are distraught with team success is certainly common in this day of age.
Which is why Nick Mullens may be the most undervalued and unappreciated player in the country.
Highly-skilled over highly-touted as a high school senior, the Alabama product wasn’t influenced by an ego, nor did he attempt to single-handedly turn the team around by strutting with his accolades as a freshman. He had to settle into a program that at the time was flat-out bad — for lack of a better term. The planted seeds took some time but Mullens blossomed into a pure playmaker and learned the natural way of how to appreciate success.
And this upcoming season, with more changes included, it should in turn be a walk in the park for him.
Monken is out of the picture, currently serving as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive specialist, as is offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who will occupy the same position at Arizona State; two of the team’s leading receivers, Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, are also non-factors in 2016.
As the defensive-minded Jay Hopson takes over for Southern Mississippi, the receiving corps loses a dash of experience, and the Golden Eagles cope with higher expectations, it’s natural to think a potential regression is at the forefront.
With Mullens under center, though, it’s nothing he hasn’t been through already.