When Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens begins his pursuit of the NFL after the New Orleans Bowl, scouts may question his size and arm strength, but they can’t doubt his toughness.
USM coach Jay Hopson visited Patio 44 on Thursday night to speak with fans about bowl preparations, and Hopson’s eyes lit up when conversation turned to Mullens, who has broken nearly every career passing record in school history.
Mullens helped the Golden Eagles (6-6) earn bowl eligibility in a season-ending 39-24 win over Louisiana Tech by completing 29 of 33 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
However, it was recalling a low point in the season — a 55-32 loss at Texas-San Antonio on Oct. 8 — that made Hopson the most excited when talking about his quarterback.
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The moment Hopson pointed to came when the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Mullens left the game for a couple of series late in the third quarter after injuring the thumb on his right hand.
After Mullens jogged over to the sideline favoring his right hand, Hopson wandered over to check on him.
“He had a bone sticking out through his thumb,” Hopson said with a look of disbelief. “I remember I saw the bone pop out and he said, ‘Just push the bone back in and tape it. I think I can throw the ball.’ ”
The USM medical staff followed Mullens’ request. The bone was pushed back in place and they closed the wound with stitches.
Mullens re-entered the game and threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to cut the UTSA lead to 48-32 with 6:47 remaining. UTSA put the game to rest with a touchdown with 1:57 left.
“It’s the most amazing thing from a quarterback I’ve ever seen,” Hopson said. “He was throwing some balloon balls out there, but the bottom line is that’s the competitor in him. He fought through and a lot of quarterbacks would have said, ‘Hey, I’m done. I’ve got a bone through my hand. I can’t throw anymore. I’m done.’ He’s a young man who kept fighting and battling.”
Unfortunately for Mullens and the Golden Eagles, the quarterback suffered a concussion in a 38-27 loss to Charlotte Nov. 5 and missed the next two games — losses to Old Dominion and North Texas.
“It took two or three weeks for Nick to get back from (the thumb injury at UTSA),” Hopson said. “Right before the Marshall game, he got back to about 90 percent and had a heck of a game. Then he gets knocked out against Charlotte and doesn’t play (the next two games).
“That shows you how tough Nick is. He’s really been injured since UTSA. He’s been battling. He came out against Tech and played a tremendous game.”
Mullens didn’t suffer a broken bone in the thumb and played with a glove on his right hand against LSU the next week, but there have been some minor lingering issues as pointed out by his girlfriend, Haleigh Hughes:
Mullens completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions despite sitting out what amounted to three games this season.
Mullens will have to again be on top of his game when the Golden Eagles take on Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6) in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Hopson hopes that Mullens and the rest of the USM seniors will go out with a nice contingent of Golden Eagle fans on hand.
“That would be big,” Hopson said. “It’s going to be a fun game and I think we’ll have a big crowd. Both sides should have a big crowd and it’ll be fun to play that game.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 17
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans