Nick Mullens’ impact as the quarterback at Southern Miss can’t be underestimated.
The last quarterback to lead Southern Miss to a victory other than Mullens was Austin Davis in 2011 when USM won the Hawaii Bowl and finished with a mark of 12-2.
Mullens wrapped up his career as a Golden Eagle quarterback last season, leading the Golden Eagles to bowl bids in his last two years with records of 9-5 and 7-6.
When Mullens received the start and played the majority of the game during his four-year career, USM was 20-19. In games where he didn’t get the start or left the game with an injury in the first quarter, the Golden Eagles were 0-11.
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In 2017, there is no clear heir apparent to Mullens.
That, understandably, creates some anxiety among the Golden Eagle faithful headed into the Sept. 2 opener against Kentucky in Hattiesburg.
Redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs appeared to hold a slight edge over sophomore Keon Howard leaving spring practice and that doesn’t seem to have changed during fall camp. Griggs missed a couple of practices midway through camp due to a banged up finger, but that likely won’t hinder his chances to be the starter.
USM head coach Jay Hopson said that he plans to make a decision on his starter during the week of the Kentucky contest.
Griggs has proven to be the more consistent passer while Howard showed last season in his two starts that he has the ability to run with the football.
The final decision will be made on which player has been the most consistent in practice and which quarterback has done a better job of taking care of the ball.
The next starting quarterback doesn’t have to play up to the standard of Mullens, who broke nearly every USM passing record. Whoever is behind center simply has to do a good job of distributing the ball and allowing players like senior running back Ito Smith and senior receiver Allenzae Staggers do their magic.
The USM receiving corps is young, but it also may be the deepest and most talented group to ever set foot on the turf at Roberts Stadium. Staggers pulled in 63 catches for 1,165 yards and seven scores last season. Junior Korey Robertson has a shot at a breakout season as USM’s No. 2 option after catching 37 passes for 437 yards and three touchdowns last season. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Mitchell, redshirt junior Chase Whitehead, redshirt freshman Quez Watkins and sophomore Trevor Terry of Long Beach are among the other receivers capable of making a significant impact this season.
Senior Julian Allen should also be one of the better tight ends in Conference USA this season after catching 19 passes for 281 yards and a score last year.
Smith leads a solid group of running backs that includes redshirt junior Tez Parks and junior T’Rod Daniels, a first-year transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Parks and Daniels are among the fastest players on the team and should have their fair share of big gainers.
Thin offensive line
Aside from quarterback, the other significant question mark on the offense has to be on the line where three starters were lost to graduation and depth may be an issue.
Redshirt senior guard/center Devin Farrior and redshirt sophomore Ty Pollard should be among the better offensive linemen in the conference. Six-foot-6, 320-pound redshirt sophomore Drake Dorbeck is slated in at left tackle and redshirt freshman Arvin Fletcher (6-3, 310) at left guard. Farrior is likely the center and redshirt senior Jerry Harris (6-3, 302) should be solid at right guard.
The second team gets a little uncertain, but redshirt senior guard/center Tyler Stutzman should factor in after missing the first couple of weeks of practice due to an illness. Three freshmen appear set to see playing time — right tackle Woodlyson Alcius (6-4, 309), guard Bryce Foxworth (6-3, 316) and Gautier’s Paul Gainer, who is a 6-foot-3, 280-pound left tackle.
If the line holds up and the quarterback play proves up to par, USM has a chance to have one of the better offenses in the conference.
A record of 7-5 seems the most likely outcome considering the question marks at key positions on offense.