Landon Collins was asked what he knew about Nick Mullens before the 49ers quarterback made his debut Nov. 1 against the Raiders.
“Not much, honestly,” Collins said, looking toward facing him for the first time on Monday.
Collins had to be reminded that he had, in fact, faced Mullens once before.
It was on Sept. 13, 2014. Collins was a junior safety for Alabama and Mullens was the sophomore quarterback for Southern Mississippi. Alabama won, 52-12.
“That was him?” Collins said, shocked by the coincidence.
Eventually, Collins’ memory of the game started to come back . . . even if he still was foggy about Mullens himself.
“He was kind of timid back then,” Collins said. “Obviously, it was going against the Alabama defense, though. There was a lot of pressure on him.”
Southern Miss did not score any touchdowns but Mullens completed 19 of 35 passes for 207 yards in that game. One of those was in the direction of Collins.
“He threw one on me that the receiver caught,” Collins said. “I remember that one. OK, so that was him throwing the ball . . . That’s a good one. I have to look back at that.”
Against Mullens, every little bit in the memory bank helps. He’s the NFL’s Man of Mystery, a quarterback who has come out of nowhere to not only become a starter for the 49ers but a super-successful one (albeit within a very small sample size of one game against a pitiful opponent).
Mullens completed 16 of 22 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Raiders. His 151.9 passer rating was the highest for any player in his debut with at least 20 attempts since the 1970 NFL merger. He also became the third quarterback in history to throw for at least 250 yards and three touchdowns without a pick in his first game. Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton are the others.
Not bad for a guy who a year ago was an undrafted rookie on the 49ers’ practice squad, playing not quarterback but safety on the shorthanded scout team. He started this season on the practice squad, too. But when Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL, Mullens was promoted to the backup job. Then, when C.J. Beathard (wrist) was unable to play in Week 9, Mullens became the starter.
“I certainly knew who he was,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. “I didn’t know much about him aside from who he was coming out [of college], but I thought he did a really nice job . . . You saw some things in him, he obviously understands their offense and how to execute it, and they feel confident enough in him where they’re moving forward with him. It was a really good first outing for him.”
Only a handful of guys on the Giants have faced Mullens at any level of competition. Two of them didn’t even remember it until it was pointed out to them. One is Collins, the other is defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who also was on that 2014 Alabama team. He watched the 49ers game against the Raiders and was scratching his head about the quarterback.
“I knew the name was familiar but I was trying to figure out from where,” Tomlinson said after the previous meeting was noted. “I’m glad you told me.”
Tomlinson said he didn’t have many lasting impressions from that game or of Mullens. Southern Miss was just early-season roadkill on the highway toward a national championship for Alabama (a journey that ended with a CFP semifinal loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl).
“It was a while ago,” Tomlinson said, chuckling. “I just know we had to make sure we had to stop him because they could make explosive plays at any moment.”
Giants guard Will Hernandez had much more vivid recollections. He played at UTEP, which is in Conference USA with Southern Miss. Although they never faced off against each other because both are offensive players, their teams played twice during their overlapping college careers.
“All I can remember is that he was really well talked about throughout Conference USA,” Hernandez said. “He’s a really good quarterback. Very disciplined. You could tell he always played to win. A good player. You can tell he plays with heart.”
The Giants will be the first team to face Mullens with any regular-season tape to study on him. It will be a good test to see how much of Mullens’ success in his previous start stemmed from his shroud of anonymity and how much was actually him.
“It gets harder and harder, it doesn’t get easier,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s going to be a big challenge this week.”
He will have some advantages, though. For one, he’s been able to get first-team reps in full-speed practices this week, something he didn’t get last week when the 49ers had a short week and Beathard’s availability still was up in the air. Think about that: He did what he did against the Raiders without even practicing!
His status may have changed, but Mullens has not.
“He acted the same as the practice-squad safety as he did as the number two as he has this week as the number one,” Shanahan said. “Nick is the same guy every single day.”
He’s probably the same guy he was when he brought his college team to Tuscaloosa in 2014, too. The only difference is that now, people notice.