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 pre-draft 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 prime-time 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.