USA Today/Chuck Cook

Kentucky Wildcats defense has hefty respect for Golden Eagles QB Nick Mullens

With a schedule that includes matchups against high-profile quarterbacks like Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and elite Georgia freshman Jacob Eason, Kentucky will see more than its fair share of talented signal callers during the 2016 season.

The best of the bunch, arguably, may be flying well under the radar as the Wildcats prepare to face Nick Mullens of Southern Miss on Saturday in the season opener at Commonwealth Stadium.

"I think they're very aware of the type of talent that he has," UK secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said of his unit's respect for Mullens. "... Every quarterback that we're going to face is going to be pretty good, but 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."

Mullens, a 6-foot-1, 207-pound senior, returns to lead one of the best offenses in college football from a year ago. Southern Miss averaged 509.5 yards per game (12th nationally) and 39.9 points per game (13th). For his part, Mullens completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 12 interceptions.

The Golden Eagles went 9-5, earning a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and scored 50 or more points five times along the way.

"Along with having a very accurate arm, he makes very good decisions; he manages the game well," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of Mullens, who was a modest two-star prospect out of Hoover (Ala.) Spain Park High School in 2013. Four years later, he's the reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and a member of preseason watch lists for the Maxwell, O'Brien, Camp, Unitas and Manning awards.

His experience makes him a difficult matchup for a UK defense with a lot of young faces, particularly in the front seven.

"He knows the situations, what to do with the ball," Eliot said. "Not only is he an excellent passer, but he's an excellent decision-maker... I can't think of anybody we've played who's quite like him."

"He's a good quarterback," UK sophomore cornerback Chris Westry said. "He doesn't make throws that he wishes he could have back."

Kentucky's secondary is considered the strength of its team entering the 2016 season and has been drawing praise as perhaps the best in the SEC this year. Clinkscale likes that Southern Miss will force his group to be extremely focused in the opener.

"We want to challenge ourselves every week," he said, "so especially for a secondary, being able to throw the ball and move the ball like they did last year with that great quarterback, it gives us that challenge."

Clinkscale added the secondary is stressing three things going into the opener: communicate; no big shots down the field; and get the receiver on the ground with solid tackling after the catch. The Golden Eagles recorded 109 "explosive plays" of 20-plus yards last season.

"Communication and a sense of urgency is going to be critical in this situation," Clinkscale said. 

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