Herd preps for true frosh QB
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Bill Legg knows what Southern Mississippi is going through, for his Marshall offense was in the same boat two seasons ago.
The Thundering Herd didn't carry the albatross of a marathon losing streak - shoot, the team won a bowl game in that 2011 season. But Legg operated with a true freshman at quarterback who didn't have the benefit of sneaking onto campus early and getting a spring season under his belt.
Rakeem Cato started most of that season and required closer guidance. Such is the case at Southern Miss, which started true freshman Nick Mullens under center for the first time last week.
Mullens and the Golden Eagles (0-7 overall, 0-3 Conference USA) carry their 19-game losing streak into Joan C. Edwards Stadium for a noon game Saturday against Marshall (4-3, 2-1). CBS Sports Network is airing the contest.
Legg remembered what it was like to bring Cato along from scratch - for one thing, that hyper-tempo offense the Herd now runs was shelved until the spring. He knows what TCU coach Todd Monken and his offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo, are going through.
"You have to manage the game for [a young quarterback]," Legg said. "You can't put in him situations. You've got to turn him into a game manager, not put him in situations where he has to win the game for you. But he just takes advantage of some things they give.
"You've got to be able to run the football well when you're in that situation. The problem we had, Cato was young but so was a lot of younger guys, so we weren't as consistent running the football as we would have liked, but our defense played well. We played great special teams, we played great defense and we didn't turn the football over - except there were two games that really hurt us from a turnover standpoint.
"The rest of them, we did a pretty good job of managing that, and [Cato] did a good job of managing the game."
That's what is expected of Mullens, a pure pocket passer who if nothing else showed a strong arm last week against North Texas. He threw an early touchdown pass, a nice 59-yard shot to Dominique Sullivan.
But the rest of the first half was difficult, to put it mildly. The Eagles suffered four three-and-outs, and Mullens threw a late interception that the Mean Green turned into a 24-yard TD drive and a 41-7 halftime lead.
In a cruel coincidence, Southern Miss lost that game by the same 55-14 score as East Carolina rung up the previous week on the Eagles. Mullens went 12 of 31 for 210 yards, three interceptions and four sacks, the latter contributing to the Eagles being held to 39 yards rushing. They went three-and-out six times and ran only 52 scrimmage plays.
But Mullens kept his wits intact, by his coach's account.
"I think he's got tremendous mental toughness," Monken said. "He's a smart player. I think he's accurate. I think he's got leadership qualities and I think we've done a good job of just talking about the next play. We're building."
Mullens, a 6-foot-1, 188-pound native of Hoover, Ala., had played two games in mop-up duty before relieving senior Allen Bridgford in the second quarter of the ECU game. We went 9 of 17 for 97 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, an experience that he said helped him when he got the starting nod two days later.
The television crew that night noted the usual spate of freshman mistakes, i.e., throwing the ball a count late and trying to throw into a tight window against good coverage.
"The biggest thing I need to work on, probably, ball control and pocket presence," Mullens said. "There were a few throws I could have hung in the pocket and made. Instead, I got flushed out. That's something I could get better on.
"Going through progressions, I thought I did a decently good job, reading things out and making throws when they had to be made. Of course, I can always get better."
The Eagles will run a lot of four-receiver sets, sometimes switching to three-wide and two backs. Youth is all around - receivers Tyre'oune Holmes (34 receptions, 247 yards), Marquise Ricard (13-144, two TDs) and James Cox (10-101, one TD) are all true freshmen, and running backs Jalen Richard (231 yards) and Tyre Bracken (93 yards) are sophomores.
There are some skill players from the Eagles' 2011 Conference USA championship team, notably Sullivan and senior running back Kendrick Hardy (202 yards). Hardy, who has missed the last two games but is expected to return, leads the team in yards per carry with 4.3.
But the running game has had a tough go of it. One crazy stat: When George Payne scored on a 2-yard run in the third quarter against North Texas, it was the Eagles' first rushing touchdown of the season. Opponents have scored 24 such TDs.
The Eagles may not have picked a good time to run into Marshall's pride-wounded defense. The Herd is still second in scoring defense (23.0) and first on total defense (339.1), but was roughed up a week ago in a 51-49 loss at Middle Tennessee.
MTSU has a veteran QB in Logan Kilgore, on the opposite end of the experience spectrum from Mullens. So will the Herd apply "bonus" pressure to the youngster?
"It's not that much of a deviation," said Chuck Heater, MU's defensive coordinator. "You've got things you pick and choose on a weekly basis. You've got to be able to cover people no matter what you do, and occasionally you've got to bring a few extra folks, no matter who you're playing. We do that every week.
"So we'll see how it goes. But you certainly don't want him to get comfortable and confident, certainly."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.