Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken has quite a conundrum on his hands. Does he start Nick Mullens, the incumbent who has started 16 games over the past two seasons, or Tyler Matthews, a former four-star recruit who was ranked the sixth pro-style quarterback in the nation by Rivals and top player in the state of Kansas?
That question has been looming since the spring and the competition has remained in a dead heat every step of the way.
In the Spring Game, Matthews had the better day, leading the White team to 22-14 victory while throwing for 326 yards and two touchdowns. He was not perfect however, throwing an interception and completing just 51 percent of his passes.
Mullens threw two touchdowns as well, but struggled mightily besides those two throws. Both plays went for over 70 yards, but the majority of yardage was picked up after the catch. Outside of those plays, he completed 15-of-27 pass attempts for just 53 yards and two picks. His last pass of the game was a terrible throw that was not within 15 yards of any receiver and was intercepted by Deshadrick Truly.
While he struggled in the Spring Game, he has looked just as sharp as Matthews in every fall scrimmage and practice. Both have worked with the first and second team every practice and have both consistently made plays.
In USM’s scrimmage on Aug. 15, both quarterbacks threw a touchdown without being intercepted. The following week, Matthews threw three touchdowns, but was also picked off twice while Mullens threw a touchdown and an interception.
While the interceptions are alarming for both quarterbacks, they have shown the ability to lead this team. Mullens has shown the ability to get hot and complete several passes in a row, sustaining long drives, but can struggle with decision making. Matthews has the bigger arm, can stretch the ball downfield to pick up big chunks of yards and has flashed some scary good accuracy with tight-window throws, but lives dangerously.
In the season opener against Mississippi State, Monken has said both quarterbacks will get a chance to lead the offense.
“We anticipate both to play, because both are good players,” – Monken
But eventually someone will have to force Monken’s hand into being the guy. Two quarterback systems simply do not work unless one of the quarterbacks only comes in to run. So which quarterback is it going to be?
Two years ago, it was clear that Mullens was the right guy for the job. He took over the job as a true freshman and provided a spark to the offense, ultimately ending the program’s 23-game losing streak in a record-breaking six touchdown performance.
However, he was given the keys to lead the team last season and just did not take a big step forward in his progression. He threw for just 12 touchdowns in 9 starts last season as the Golden Eagles fell to a 3-9 season.
At this point in his career, it is fair to question Mullens’ upside despite being just a third-year junior. He simply just does not have the pedigree as only a two-star prospect with less than a handful scholarship offers. While scouting services are far from perfect by any means, they do provide a good indication of a player’s natural talent.
This is not to say that Mullens simply cannot succeed or that he is not talented. He has proven that he can be successful and is more talented than his scouting ranking and scholarship offer list. But how far can he really take this team?
We know what we are going to get from Mullens at this point. He may have a great game from time to time and flash some impressive stats, but he will also have games where he just simply looks overmatched by the defense.
He had three games last season where he completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes and three games with multiple interceptions. He only had one game last season in which he threw more than two touchdowns, a three touchdown performance against Middle Tennessee State which was easily his best game of the season. He threw for 426 yards that day, completing 36 of his 54 pass attempts.
One could make the argument that he was finally turning the corner at that juncture of the season, leading the Golden Eagles to a 30-20 win over North Texas and completing his first four passes against Louisiana Tech before injuring his foot.
But in the final two games, he was once again inconsistent and struggled to move the offense. Simply put, Mullens’ ceiling may only be high enough to lead USM into mediocrity.
Matthews is the wildcard. Everyone always loves the backup quarterback or the new guy in town who just might be the answer. He has certainly generated a ton of buzz throughout both the spring and the fall with his plus arm strength.
He originally attended TCU, but decided to transfer after a quarterback battle with Trevone Boykin and spent last season sitting out due to undergraduate transfer rules.
With only a handful of snaps in real game action, Matthews’ true ability has not been tested. Sure he has teased with his big arm in practices and scrimmages, but there is no real way to judge whether he is ready to take this team past mediocrity.
His upside is what makes him an intriguing option. Being a former top recruit means that at one time, just about everyone in the country agreed he was a stud. He definitely has the potential to be a star in a smaller conference like Conference USA.
While both quarterbacks are going to play and both deserve to play, Monken has to make Matthews the full time quarterback sooner than later. He simply has too much upside to sit on the bench. He is the type of guy who has all the ability to lift this program from the doldrums.