When everyone started talking about the Southern Miss Golden Eagles heading into this season, there were three major points of talk. Everyone wanted to know about the JUCO transfers, which FBS transfers would make an impact, and which quarterback would be the starter this fall.
It's hard to believe that now three-year starter Nick Mullens was in a very long battle to hold on to his starting spot. Winning that positional battle may be the single biggest reason for a Southern Miss turnaround in 2015.
The 6-1, 196 pound quarterback was a Birmingham area star during his high school days, actually winning the Gatorade 2012 Alabama Football Player of the Year award. Despite the multitude of accolades, Mullens did not see many scholarship offers. One of the first to offer Mullens was Jacksonville State of the FBS. He was committed to the Gamecocks for a while before UAB came calling. He was all set to go to UAB, until getting an offer from another Conference USA program with a winning history: Southern Miss.
Newly hired Todd Monken had very little time to get a recruiting class together after accepting the Golden Eagles head coaching position, but knew he needed a quarterback to run his system. Monken and company were able to get Mullens to bypass the local program, UAB, and sign with Southern Miss.
Mullens impressed the coaching staff from the very beginning and finally saw game action versus Nebraska on the road. Later, he made his first start as a true freshman versus North Texas and the rest was history. He ended the season with 1,659 yards passing as a true freshman starter, including 370 yards passing versus UAB.
During his sophomore season, Mullens played and started in 10 games, throwing for 2,470 yards.
Despite his ever improving statistics, his inability to win games (4 wins in 2013-2014 seasons) and a TCU transfer in the wings made many wonder if Mullens would move to a reserve role in 2015. For many quarterbacks, a perceived lack of faith from the coaching staff would be a death sentence to their careers. For Mullens, it was a chance to become a better player.
From the beginning of spring ball, Monken and company made it clear that Mullens had to win the starting job on his play, not based on what he had already done. What followed was an epic battle in which no one, not even those close with the program, has a clue who would take the starting job.
Finally, Mullens stepped out as the starter versus Mississippi State and has been excellent ever since. Only eight games into the 2015 season, he has more passing yards (2,613), more touchdown passes (21), and a higher completion percentage (63.5%) than in his first two seasons. The steps he has taken forward are key for a team that has won more games, five, in 2015 than in the entirety of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Mullens sits fifth nationally in passing with 2,613 yards on the season, good for 326.6 yards per game. His 21 touchdown passes rank him sixth nationally. With a stable offensive line that has been excellent in pass protection, a group of wide receivers that can make catches, a running game that must be accounted for, and a schedule that is ripe for big games, Mullens could be in store for several honors this fall.
More than any award, the junior quarterback has a great chance to lead Southern Miss to their first bowl trip since the 2011 season. The Golden Eagles are one game away from being bowl eligible and have been projected in the New Orleans Bowl, the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and the St. Petersburg Bowl. They only have to beat UTEP, Rice, Old Dominion, or Louisiana Tech. They are the decided favorite in all but one of those games.
Wherever the Golden Eagles go bowling, Mullens will be leading the way.