SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – Nick Mullens is getting an extended look as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback, and an important test awaits Sunday.
Mullens will make the first road start of his NFL career against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his first chance to show how he handles a hostile environment after making his first two starts at home.
After the 49ers lost No. 1 quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, C.J. Beathard got the first crack at replacing him.
Beathard failed to impress over five starts, and the 49ers (2-8) turned to Mullens, who hadn’t played a snap in the NFL before his Nov. 1 start against Oakland.
He threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns in that victory and played solid again in a Nov. 12 loss to the New York Giants. Now Mullens, an undrafted free agent who spent all of last season on San Francisco’s practice squad, will have his poise tested on the road.
“That definitely is a big challenge,” Mullens said Wednesday. “I haven’t played on the road yet. But I think this team is excited. It’s important we start fast. It’s important for me to keep my same mindset. Don’t let the environment impact the way you play.”
Mullens has completed 71 percent of his passes for 512 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in two games. Those numbers, along with the leadership he has shown, have placed him squarely in the 49ers’ thoughts regarding next season. Assuming Garoppolo makes a healthy return by training camp, which is expected, Mullens will be a legitimate contender for the backup role.
But coming off a bye week, he’s trying to help the 49ers finish this season strong after a disappointing first 10 games. Tampa Bay’s defense, on paper, would suggest Mullens can find his comfort zone Sunday.
The Buccaneers have allowed the fifth-most yards per game in the NFL (395.9), and they sport the league’s worst turnover ratio at minus-23.
Tampa Bay (3-7) has not generated a single defensive takeaway since Justin Evans made a first-quarter interception in the third week against Pittsburgh. Entering Sunday, the Buccaneers have played 32 consecutive quarters without a takeaway.
The 49ers haven’t been much better with a minus-15 turnover ratio, second-worst in the NFL.
“I think that’s one of the reasons for both teams not having much success,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
Mullens has a unique method for trying to prepare for a road game, one that he used even before becoming the 49ers starter.
He found audio files of artificial crowd noise, via Apple Music, slips on his headphones and listens to it at home, calling out signals over the noise as if he was at the line of scrimmage.
“I have a very strict routine that I try to stick to, and it helps me prepare,” Mullens said. “And that does involve calling out the plays and envisioning the plays and seeing them in your head.”
Given that preparation, it was somewhat surprising to hear Mullens say that he actually did take a couple days off during his bye week and spent it with his wife.
Shanahan said he didn’t talk much to Mullens during the break.
“You let him get away,” the coach said. “He’s heard enough of me for the time being.”
NOTES: Garoppolo, who until recently was using crutches in his recovery from surgery for a torn ACL, has been cleared to at least watch practice from the sidelines, which he did Wednesday as a light drizzle fell. . Receiver Pierre Garcon (knee) did not practice but did agility work on the side. Guard Joshua Garnett (thumb) was held out. Linebacker Reuben Foster (hamstring) and center Weston Richburg (knee) both were limited.
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press.