Patrick Magee

Hopson sees NFL potential in Southern Miss QB Mullens

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Nick Mullens fires a pass for a first down during Black and Gold game, Saturday, Apr. 23, 2016.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Nick Mullens fires a pass for a first down during Black and Gold game, Saturday, Apr. 23, 2016.

New Southern Miss football coach Jay Hopson watched film and did everything he could to quickly familiarize himself with the roster he'll have to work with in 2016.

After he was hired on Jan. 30, Hopson and his new staff went through a three-month crash course of evaluating personnel and determining how they would best fit into their new schemes.

One player didn't require as much homework as the rest - senior quarterback Nick Mullens.

"He's a football player," Hopson said of Mullens. "Nick Mullens, I've told a lot of guys he is like Chad Pennington or Byron Leftwich. He throws the ball as well as any quarterback I've been around. He's a tremendous football player and he's all that's been advertised."

Pennington and Leftwich are quarterbacks who played at Marshall while Hopson was on the staff there from 1996-2000. Both men went on to substantial careers in the NFL.

While the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Mullens may not be as big as the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Pennington was in his playing days, the comparison between the two is an interesting one. Both players are great competitors who have a high football IQ.

"I see a lot of similarities," Hopson said. "Nick knows he's got work to do to do all those things. Chad went on to a great NFL career. In my opinion, (Mullens) is an NFL quarterback. He's a player."

Even as Pennington dealt with shoulder injuries late in his NFL career with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, he found ways to beat you.

Mullens doesn't have the top flight arm strength that scouts look for, but he does much of the same pinpoint accuracy that Pennington showed off at Marshall and in the NFL. The two men also share great leadership qualities.

Mullens has been a galvanizing leader for the program ever since he stepped onto the field as a true freshman quarterback in 2012. As I've said before, USM football could still be digging itself out of a deep hole if Mullens didn't choose USM over UAB out of Spain Park High School in Hoover, Ala.

Mullens is coming off a season where he set nearly every USM single-season passing record as a junior. He completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Fortunately for Mullens, he should again have plenty of support on offense entering the 2016 campaign if everything falls into place entering fall camp.

Junior Ito Smith has a shot to be the best running back in Conference USA coming off a huge sophomore season and redshirt freshman Patrick Brooks looks capable of making an impact this year. Two more running backs should join a talented depth chart in the spring as redshirt junior George Payne and redshirt sophomore Tez Parks return from injuries.

Senior D.J. Thompson sophomore Korey Robertson appear set to lead a deep receiving corps.

Mullens will have all three starters back on the interior of the offensive line, but he will have to deal with two first-year starters at the tackle positions. Those starters are potentially redshirt freshman Ty Pollard and senior Jacob Fleming.

For Mullens to reach his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback, Southern Miss needs to take another step forward following a 9-5 season in 2015. With Mullens at the helm, there's no reason to believe that won't be the case.

Contact Patrick Magee at pmagee@sunherald.com and follow him on Twitter at Patrick_Magee and on Facebook at Facebook.com/mageeonsports.

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