How Mul­lens went from suit­ing up for pre-draft in­ter­view to the 49ers

As Nick Mul­lens steps into start­ing role, coach re­calls first im­pres­sion

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By Chris Biderman

SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shana­han’s first im­pres­sion of Nick Mul­lens was mem­o­rable, but per­haps not in the way a fu­ture NFL start­ing quar­ter­back would pre­fer.

“Nick was but­toned up tight, came in like he was in­ter­view­ing for a qual­ity-con­trol po­si­tion,” Shana­han said about their face-to-face meet­ing be­fore the 2017 NFL draft.

Of course, Mul­lens wasn’t in­ter­view­ing for a bot­tom-rung job as an as­sis­tant coach. He was hop­ing to get em­ployed as a pro­fes­sional quar­ter­back af­ter a stand­out ca­reer at South­ern Mis­sis­sippi. Mul­lens wore a suit to his meet­ing with Shana­han while other play­ers of­ten wear sweats to their pre-draft in­ter­views.

But Mul­lens im­pressed Shana­han be­yond his at­tire.

“You could tell why he was so suc­cess­ful in col­lege just by how he talked and how he saw the game,” Shana­han re­called.

The 49ers in 2017, with their brand new regime in place, en­tered the pre­draft process starved for quar­ter­backs. They be­gan with none on the ros­ter be­fore sign­ing vet­er­ans Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley as stop-gap op­tions while they searched for their even­tual face of the fran­chise. They wound up trad­ing back into the third round for C.J. Beathard and signed Mul­lens as a pri­or­ity free agent af­ter the draft.

Shana­han re­lied on his quar­ter­backs coach, Rich Scan­garello, to scour prospects to help fill out the depth chart. Scan­garello iden­ti­fied Mul­lens af­ter he helped turn around a South­ern Miss pro­gram that went from 1-11 when he was a true fresh­man to get­ting a berth in the Con­fer­ence USA cham­pi­onship game in 2015 af­ter a 9-3 reg­u­lar sea­son.

The Golden Ea­gles lost 45-28 to Western Ken­tucky in that game and then fell 44-31 to Wash­ing­ton in the Heart of Dal­las Bowl. But Mul­lens’ im­pres­sive ju­nior cam­paign led to him land­ing on 2016 pre­sea­son watch lists for the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards, given to col­lege foot­ball’s top over­all player and quar­ter­back, re­spec­tively.

“Nick was al­ways just a smart, ac­cu­rate quar­ter­back,” 49ers cor­ner­back Tar­var­ius Moore said, who played with Mul­lens at South­ern Miss. “He al­ways made the right reads. He just al­ways gave us a chance to win. He just had that ca­pa­bil­ity in him to just al­ways will us to win.

“Some­times, if the de­fense wasn’t play­ing well, or we were strug­gling in the game ... he just al­ways had that de­ter­mi­na­tion that he could al­ways get us the win. You could see it in the way he pre­pared each and ev­ery week to give us that chance, that op­por­tu­nity.”

South­ern Miss went 7-6 in Mul­lens’ fi­nal year. He wound up set­ting school records in ca­reer pass­ing yards (11,994), sin­gle-sea­son pass­ing yards (4,476) and sin­gle-game pass­ing yards (591). Brett Favre held the all-time yardage record in 1990 be­fore it was bro­ken by Austin Davis in 2011.

Mul­lens also shares a re­sem­blance to Scan­garello, par­tic­u­larly in the face, which wasn’t lost on Shana­han.

“The first thing that stood out is when he came in,” Shana­han said. “(we) thought he looked like Rich’s younger son. So, we kind of gave him a lot of crap for it on why he liked him so much.”

Adding Mul­lens was a move on the mar­gins. He was signed to de­velop on the prac­tice squad with the chance at pro­vid­ing in­sur­ance in case there was an in­jury. The 49ers car­ried two quar­ter­backs on the ac­tive ros­ter through­out 2017, when Mul­lens spent his first NFL cam­paign on the prac­tice squad as the de facto third stringer.

He was an af­ter­thought, of­ten work­ing as a scout team safety dur­ing prac­tice while Hoyer, Beathard and, later, Jimmy Garop­polo started games. Still, the way Mul­lens han­dled his day-to-day tasks caught Shana­han’s at­ten­tion in a pos­i­tive way.

“You don’t have enough guys to prac­tice and he didn’t just sit there and mope about it be­cause I get how peo­ple could be­cause it isn’t a fair sit­u­a­tion,” Shana­han said. “But, he found ways to work on his own, to grab guys af­ter, to go out late at night and do stuff. He’s ob­sessed with get­ting bet­ter and he’s needed the time to do it and it helped him get ready for last week.”

Now Mul­lens is pre­par­ing for sec­ond con­sec­u­tive prime­time start, this one com­ing on “Mon­day Night Foot­ball” against the New York Gi­ants.

The de­ci­sion to give Mul­lens his sec­ond start came af­ter his im­pres­sive de­but against the Raiders last Thurs­day night, when he tossed three touch­down passes in a blowout win while re­plac­ing Beathard, who strug­gled to throw ac­cu­rately be­cause of a wrist in­jury on his throw­ing arm suf­fered the pre­vi­ous game against the Ari­zona Car­di­nals.

Shana­han in­formed his quar­ter­backs Tues­day that Mul­lens would be the starter.

“I don’t think it was too tough of a de­ci­sion,” the coach said. “Our team played re­ally well and he played well. It was go­ing to be hard to not give him the op­por­tu­nity.”

Shana­han wouldn’t guar­an­tee Mul­lens would start any games be­yond Mon­day night. It will be a week-to-week de­ci­sion, he said.

But, for now, Mul­lens choice to wear a suit for his pre-draft in­ter­view ap­pears to be pay­ing off.

JOSE CAR­LOS FA­JARDO/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

San Fran­cisco 49ers start­ing quar­ter­back Nick Mul­lens (4) looks to throw against the Oak­land Raiders in Santa Clara on Nov. 1.

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