UK Defense Zeroing in on Southern Miss

Mark Stoops didn’t waste any time this week revealing the respect he has for Kentucky’s season-opening opponent.

“It is great that we play such a quality opponent and make sure that we come out of the blocks strong,” Stoops said in the opening statement of his Monday press conference. “We are playing a really good Southern Miss team.”

On offense, Stoops, his coaching staff and his players are in unanimous agreement that the challenge starts with senior quarterback Nick Mullens.

“They won nine games a year ago and return a very good quarterback in Nick Mullens, extremely accurate and puts the ball in some very tight spots,” Stoops said. “So we’ll have to be on point.”

Those nine wins came largely on the strength of Mullens’ right arm. 

He was one of the most prolific passers in America a season ago, setting school records for passing yards (4,476) and passing touchdowns (38) in the process. He topped 300 yards passing in 10 games, including an eye-popping 476 in nearly leading the Golden Eagles to a comeback victory at Nebraska.

“Well I think along with having a very accurate arm, he makes very good decisions,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “He manages the game well. He knows the situations. He knows what to do with the ball, and so he’s not only an excellent passer. He’s also an excellent decision maker.”

Mullens also has plenty of weapons around him, including running back Ito Smith. Smith was a 1,000-yard rusher in addition to catching 49 passes out of the backfield in 2015.

“Very good runner,” Eliot said. “He’s more a slasher type. He finds a hole and hits it. He’s a guy that he’s not gonna dance. He’s gonna make his decision and hit it hard.”

It still starts with Mullens, making for an interesting test for a group widely believed to be the strength of UK’s team: the secondary. Steve Clinkscale, the man who coaches them, doesn’t see the matchup giving the defensive backs added motivation, but Mullens does have their attention.

“I think they’re very aware of the type of talent he has,” Clinkscale said. “They’re very aware of his accuracy, what he did last year, how that program has turned around. I think they take that as a challenge. They’ll do it every week. Every quarterback that we’re going to face is going to be pretty good. This one happens to be the first week and he’s a pretty special kid. We think he’ll be one of the best we see all year and we’re going to get ready for the challenge.”

Stoops agrees with the assessment.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Stoops said. “We’ll face some very talented quarterbacks, that’s for sure, but I have great respect for this kid. He is very good, very poised, you can tell he has great vision. He’s seen everything.”

That includes secondaries similar in quality to Kentucky’s. That’s not going to stop the Cats from being confident.

“Of course,” safety Mike Edwards said. “Of course. DBs gotta have some swag.”