TAMPA — Nick Mullens has made a strong impression after two NFL starts, but when 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan first laid eyes on the baby-faced and undersized quarterback out of Southern Miss last year, he didn't pass their eye test for a pro quarterback.
"We took the step of bringing Nick Mullens in because we wanted to learn more about him," Lynch recalled this week. "I remember getting called down that he was here and ready to meet with Kyle and I, and Kyle and I were in (Shanahan's) office, and we came out to see Nick and he was in this suit and he looked like a 15-year-old quarterback. We were going, "All right, where's Mullens?'
"But then we went and visited with him, and you just learn the kid has got some special attributes to him," Lynch continued. "He loves football. He's got immense football I.Q., and everything people said about him at Southern Miss. Was he talented enough? We didn't know, but he did some things we liked and all the intangibles are there."
Mullens signed with the 49ers, joined their practice squad, signed a futures deal last January, and was activated from the practice squad to be the No. 2 quarterback when starter Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
Garoppolo's replacement, C.J. Beathard, injured his hand, and suddenly Mullens was the 49ers starting quarterback, making his debut on Nov. 1 on Thursday Night Football against the bay-area rival Raiders.
Mullens led the 49ers to a convincing 34-3 win that night, throwing three touchdowns while posting a 151.9 quarterback rating in his NFL debut. He didn't quite duplicate that success in his next game, throwing one touchdown pass and two interceptions in a loss to the Giants, but after a bye week, he will make his third pro start Sunday against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
"He came in here, and we knew we had a good practice-squad quarterback we knew we could develop," Lynch said. "He got better every single day, and his teammates respect him because of the way he goes about his work. So much of this league is being ready when you get your opportunity, and Nick Mullens is a great example."
Bucs offensive coordinate Todd Monken, who coached Mullens at Southern Miss, said Mullens has "everything you want as a player and as a quarterback."
"He's elite in a lot of areas that are hard to find when it comes to toughness, mental toughness, his preparation, how much he enjoys playing football," Monken said. "And his personality where guys are going to gravitate toward him. He really puts himself out there with his actions. He's not a flashy guy. He's not someone who is going to say the wrong thing. He's just going to work his rear end off, and that's going to carry over to his teammates and I couldn't be more thrilled for him. He loves playing football, and we wouldn't have been able to do the things we did at Southern Miss without him. He made me a better coach."
Lynch said he now uses Mullens as an example of the importance of being ready for any opportunities when talking to his kids.
"(My son) Jake is a redshirt at Stanford, (and) I say, 'Jake, don't waste a day,' Nick was playing scout-team safety this time last year because we didn't have enough guys. Kyle did something in a team meeting where he showed the guys (and told them), 'Hey, I went back in the film to see what Nick was doing a year ago today. There he was running scout team safety.' But then he showed him after practice working for 40 minutes and showed the time stamp in the video of Nick out there grinding at quarterback. So it's a great example for a lot of guys. Be ready when you're opportunity comes.''
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.