Nick Mullens reflects on his first year as an NFL starter with the 49ers.
As he worked his ways through the halls of Spain Park High School on a visit back home, current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens didn’t look out of place at all despite his recent climb to fame. The former star quarterback for the Jaguars, who was named the Shelby County Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year in the state during his time at the school, carried himself just as he did when he roamed the halls with a backpack six years earlier. His demeanor calm, his attitude positive and his respect for those around him his defining characteristic.
Mullens has always been a person that relies heavily on respect for others. He doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, and he doesn’t want to let you down. So when it comes to football, that means putting his head down, doing what he’s asked and working harder than anyone else on the field. It’s that distinguishing trait that helped him storm on the scene of the NFL in historic fashion during the 2018 football season with the San Francisco 49ers.
Climbing the ladder
While most will remember his record-setting three-touchdown performance in a 34-3 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in his first NFL start for the 49ers, proof Mullens could compete in the league came in the first preseason game of 2018. With his team trailing the entire game, and down 21-16 late, Mullens led the comeback. With 20 seconds remaining, he stepped into a throw with a defender laying out to tackle him and completed a 7-yard touchdown pass, sealing the win with a 24-21 final score. “It was an awesome moment and an awesome moment for our team,” Mullens said after the game. “The threes work together every day in practice, and it was cool to see us take advantage of our opportunities out there today.”
At the time, Mullens was the third string quarterback battling for a roster spot on the team. But that second-half comeback not only gave him the confidence he needed, but spoke volumes to the coaching staff as well. For those in Hoover and the Birmingham metro area, as well as Hattiesburg, Mississippi, his poise under pressure was no surprise. In his time at Spain Park, he was named the Shelby County Player of the Year and the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state, before going on to the University of Southern Miss Conference, where he was named the Conference USA Player of the Year.
At Spain Park, Mullens threw for 8,605 yards in his time as a starter, before going on to break records at Southern Miss, even records set by Bret Favre, throwing for 11,994 yards with current Troy University head coach Chip Lindsey his coach at both stops. Every offense he has been a part of has set records, and his crisp passing skillset has been on display, showing many he had what it took to earn a spot in the NFL. After spending his first NFL season as an undrafted free agent on the 49ers’ practice squad, Mullens had to battle to earn a spot on the team and practice squad in order to be retained for the 2018 season. True to form, he rose to the challenge.
His time to shine
Mullens, who admires Peyton Manning because of his respect and leadership, ended up making the final roster cut, and while he still sat behind starter Jimmy Garoppolo and backup C.J. Beathard, he stayed prepared. Mullens patiently waited his turn, but after Garoppolo tore his ACL just three games into the season and Beathard went 0-5 before also getting injured, the time came.
Heading into one of the Thursday night games, Mullens’ name wasn’t called until just a few days before the game. But that work ethic of preparing like a starter and doing what he was asked and then some paid off. “I found out on Monday or Tuesday, I can’t even remember, but we were in meetings and the quarterback’s coach said I was getting all the reps today,” Mullens said. “I said, ‘Alright, here we go.’ Our preparation stayed consistent. I study the plan and always try to be ready when my name is called, and it was called.”
Three days after finding out he was going to be starting as a quarterback in the NFL, the pinnacle of his career and the dream of thousands of kids, Mullens stepped onto the field under the lights of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and did what he does best—played football. An undrafted free agent out of college, he completed 16 of his 22 passes in the game for 260 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 victory against the Oakland Raiders. With those three touchdowns, Mullens tied a franchise record for touchdown passes by a 49ers quarterback in their first start for the team, and was the first to do so since the 2003 season when Tim Rattey tossed three touchdowns against the St. Louis Rams. “It’s everything I dreamed of,” Mullens said, trying to hold back tears after the win. “I love football and have been playing since second grade. This is what you always work for, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
Mullens putting together that kind of performance came as no surprise to the coaching staff, and it showed early in the game with the first career snap being an 11-yard completion for a first down. “I didn’t plan on running it every down all game,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “We like to pass, and we liked starting out that way. We have confidence in Nick and that’s why he is here. That was nothing different.”
While most would expect nerves, Mullens was just excited to get on the field. “I was ready to go to be honest,” he said. “I’m pretty chill in the locker room, but on game day I love to compete, and that’s what it’s all about, so I was ready to go and the whole team was.”
And it showed. On that first drive, he went 3-for-3 and capped it off with a 24-yard touchdown pass on a roll out to a wide open Pierre Garcon. He then came out on his second drive and led his team on a 13-play 66-yard drive that ended with his second touchdown pass in as many NFL drives with a 4-yard throw to Robbie Gould. His final TD pass of the game came late in the third quarter on a 5-yard pass to George Kittle to close out the 34-3 victory and move to 1-0 as an NFL starter. That sparked his confidence moving forward, as Mullens remained the 49ers starter for the rest of the 2018 football season.
With no standout receivers or running backs around him aside from tight end George Kittle, Mullens was still able to lead San Francisco to a 3-5 mark as a starter, throwing for 220-plus yards in all eight of his starts. “I knew I was good enough, I knew I could play, but you don’t know exactly how you’re going to play,” Mullens said. “You go out there, stay relaxed and focused and try to do the best you can. I was always confident in myself because you can’t play and not be confident.”
At the end of the season, Mullens had amassed 2,277 passing yards, 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 90.8. He threw for two or more touchdowns in half of his starts and put at least one TD on the board in seven of his eight starts. Those totals also led to an average of 284.6 yards per game and a completion percentage of 64.2. “I think I can get a lot better to be honest,” Mullens said. “I’m just really proud I got the opportunity and am pretty proud of the stuff I put on tape, but I know where I can improve and I know I can get better and that’s the exciting part going into the offseason.”
Mullens was also named the recipient of the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award for taking advantage of his opportunity and turning their dream into a reality as voted on by the coaching staff.
The next step
While he’s coming off an extremely impressive first season as a starter, Mullens still isn’t considered the starting quarterback on the team with Garoppolo healthy again and ready to resume his starting role, but Mullens proved this year he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and won’t go down without a fight this offseason. Players from across the league commended him on his work ethic and ability against some of the best defenses in the league, including 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman, who is one of the top defenders in the NFL. “He’s shown he can play in this league,” Sherman said. “I hope we can keep him because teams need a quarterback. This guy’s not just playing conservative football; I’d say he’s playing like a top-half quarterback in this league. You have guys that are out there right now that are not playing better football than Nick Mullens. He could be a starter for a lot of teams in this football league.”
Mullens says the added attention on his ability to play professional football won’t change his mentality. “My mindset doesn’t really change no matter what the situation is,” he says. “I’m competing every day. Every day you’re in the NFL you’re competing, so my mindset doesn’t change. I just do what I’m supposed to do and do more than what’s required, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Along this journey, Mullens has always had fun. And whether he’s named the 49ers starter, backup or third string quarterback moving forward, he’ll continue to put his head down and go to work with a smile on his face. “I had a blast,” he said of this season. “Before you never play, you don’t know how awesome it is to an extent. Now that I do, it’s going to be different.”