Versatile Nate Mullen leads Hickory Ridge football’s offense

In a recent game against Northwest Cabarrus, Hickory Ridge all-purpose player Nate Mullen did just about everything he could do offensively, except block as an offensive lineman.

The game was less than a quarter old and Mullen had already rushed for a touchdown, caught a couple of passes and thrown a completed pass. That kind of versatility has become commonplace with the Ragin’ Bulls senior.

“We know whenever we get him the ball, it ends up being a good play call,” said Hickory Ridge head coach Marty Paxton. “You can give him the ball, knowing it’s not a good play call. But you say, ‘It’s in Nate’s hands; we’ll see what happens.’ ”

Mullen, who will be Hickory Ridge’s first Shrine Bowl all-star game representative, is a key reason for Hickory Ridge’s 8-1 record (through Oct. 30) and its lock on second place in the South Piedmont 3A Conference.

Through nine games, Mullen had 74 rushes for 610 yards, and 39 receptions for 584 yards. He had a team-high 20 touchdowns.

Mullen landed at Hickory Ridge as a freshman because of his strong football pedigree. His father is Jeff Mullen, the UNC Charlotte 49ers’ offensive coordinator.

The family has always lived wherever Jeff Mullen’s coaching career has taken him. The younger Mullen was born in Ohio, but he spent time in Winston-Salem and West Virginia when his father coached at Wake Forest and West Virginia.

While Nate Mullen attributes his toughness to his dad’s football background, his speed and elusiveness are what make him such an offensive threat. He credits his physical qualities to Paxton’s weight training classes at school.

Measuring 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Mullen plays the slotback in Hickory Ridge’s triple-option offense. He carries the ball slightly more than he catches it, but the yards he gains in each arena are about the same.

Mullen leads the Ragin’ Bulls in all-purpose yards, which includes punt and kick returns. He got called up to the varsity team as a freshman largely because of his ability to return punts.

Hickory Ridge had its best season to date during Mullen’s sophomore year. The Bulls won the SPC championship, scoring at a blistering pace. Mullen was a key factor in the win, but the team had other standouts like quarterback Nick Tyson and receiver Nick Frazier.

Hickory Ridge lost 28 seniors from that championship team, and Mullen was compelled to step up as a leader during his junior year. The Bulls went 4-8 overall and finished fifth in the conference.

“We weren’t a very good football team,” said Mullen. “It was partly because I wasn’t as good a leader as I should have been.”

“I think he felt the pressure of carrying the team,” said Paxton. “We talked him out of that. Once we did that, he started playing better.”

Mullen was named a WSOC-TV Big 22 player to watch before his junior season. He finished the year with 2,651 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns.

Mullen repeated his Big 22 nod this year. Adding the quarterback position to his repertoire has made him even more valuable.

The Bulls have added a wildcat-style play that Paxton simply calls “Nate at quarterback.” It translates into Mullen having the green light to run and improvise.

Though Mullen coasts in the backfield and looks downfield to pass, he often tucks the ball and heads up field. It’s just another way he gives defenses fits.

“I like to do anything that gets the ball in my hands,” said Mullen. “I like running the ball. God’s given me the ability to do things when I have the ball in my hands.”

Mullen, who also dabbles in amateur boxing, consistently runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at practice. His fastest time was 4.43 at the Shrine Bowl combine.

Gardner-Webb offered him a football scholarship, and Mullen received interest from several other schools, but he decided to accept the Charlotte 49ers’ offer this past summer.

“I feel like I’ll be able to come in there and use the skills I’ve been given to run the football, and hopefully to return punts and kicks,” said Mullen. “Anything they ask me to do, I’ll do it.”