Brian Hamilton
Tuesday January 5th, 2016

Richard Mullaney was new in town, and hungry. This intersection prompted him to search for a grocery store near the University of Alabama, which happens to feature three major chains within two miles of the center of its Tuscaloosa campus. Nevertheless, unfamiliar names in an unfamiliar town can turn a person around. Such was the case on one summer night for Mullaney, a California native who spent the first four years of his college football career in Oregon, as he set out to forage for grub. It was after 10 p.m. and about three miles into his walk that Mullaney came to a realization: He was still new in town, and still hungry, but also extremely lost.

"I was like, I am not supposed to be in this area where I'm at right now," Mullaney says.

He called his mother, Michelle, to relay this information, and her advice was succinct: Go home! Thus began what Mullaney describes as a late-evening, empty-stomach sprint back to more recognizable territory. It may be one of the few times Mullaney has felt out of place since he announced last June that he would play as a graduate transfer at Alabama, a decision that has worked out about as ideally as either party could have expected. The Crimson Tide got the experience and predictability it felt it needed at the position. Mullaney, meanwhile, fell into another dimension of college football, going from a 5–7 team at Oregon State to a spot in the national championship game on Monday against Clemson.

It was only last spring that the 6' 3", 208-pound wideout was working back from an elbow injury that cost him the last six games of 2014, sizing up a new coaching staff and a startling amount of youth in the Beavers' quarterback room. Currently, Mullaney's 37 catches rank third on a team preparing to play for a title, and his five touchdown grabs rank second. Finding his way to Alabama—even if he initially had trouble finding his way around Alabama—was a perfect route. "I can't even describe it, honestly," Mullaney says. "I would've never thought in a million years that I'd be where I am at today."

Others had a more aggressive vision. Mullaney received his transfer release from Oregon State on a Friday, graduated on a Saturday, spoke with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on a Sunday and visited Tuscaloosa on a Monday, making his commitment to join the Tide then and there. But that whirlwind was staged by high school coaches in California who reached out to Kiffin, the former USC head coach, and alerted him to the potential availability of exactly what he calculated his offense needed.

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Alabama lost sophomore wideout Cam Sims to an ACL tear during spring practice. It returned sophomore ArDarius Stewart, who had 12 career catches to his name. It was set to welcome Calvin Ridley, who was the nation's No. 1 receiver recruit and figured to be instantly productive but who nevertheless had zero track record on the collegiate level. What the Crimson Tide lacked was a known quantity, something to ground a group responsible for fueling an air attack. Then Mullaney, who had 83 receptions for 1,160 yards with five touchdowns in roughly two and a half seasons at Oregon State, crossed the radar screen.

"It was really a perfect match," Kiffin says. "It'd be like being in the NFL—we got ArDarius, who we feel good about. And then we don't really know anything else because we've got this first-round pick in Calvin Ridley, but he's not even in our program yet. So it was like, O.K., here's this veteran free agent out here, we know what he can do because it's already on tape, we know he can play, we know he'll line up and do things well."

Kiffin watched film and reached out to Mike Riley, Mullaney's coach at Oregon State before he left for Nebraska. He considered the state-record 122 catches Mullaney recorded as a senior for Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High to be evidence of "phenomenal ball skills." But mostly, as the offensive coordinator put it, the Crimson Tide sought someone who wasn't a "wild card." And Mullaney might have been comfortable with Alabama's scheme before he knew the correct direction to travel for groceries. During preseason camp, he rose to the top of the depth chart at slot receiver. Throughout the early portions of 2015, the voice translating signals for young receivers and issuing corrections on blocking assignments was Mullaney's, never mind that he hadn't been around the program much longer than the teammates he was addressing.

In fact, as Ridley swiftly drew Amari Cooper comparisons with his phenomenal first-year production (83 catches, 1,031 yards to date following Alabama's 38–0 shutout of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl), Mullaney could be credited in part for flattening the freshman's learning curve. Just ask Ridley. "He prepares for the game really well," Ridley says. "He reads over his notes and script, and I try to read over the notes and script with him. If I don't know what I'm doing or I have to ask a question, I'll ask him. He knows it better than me."

Or as Kiffin puts it: "He kind of plays receiver like a quarterback."

Of course, if Mullaney were merely an effective study buddy, he wouldn't have earned a notable on-field role. His capacity to digest the offense quickly helped Mullaney as much as it helped the inexperienced receivers around him, and it also made him a natural fit as a perimeter blocker for an eventual Heisman Trophy-winning tailback in junior Derrick Henry. "We can line him up all over the place, we can motion him; there are different routes in the route tree we would have to run, different perimeter blocking assignments that he may have," Alabama receivers coach Billy Napier says. "Any and everything within our offensive system, he can handle. And the guy is productive. You can't ignore the production. When we've dialed up his number, he's come through for us."

Ultimately, Mullaney was in search of a known commodity, too. He about dislodged his spine bending over backward to praise what he left behind at Oregon State—"Don't get me wrong, the quarterbacks they have are going to be really good, they're very talented," he says—but they were, inescapably, freshmen. Aside from the opportunity for immediate success, Mullaney felt the appeal of Alabama most keenly in the fact that everything was so knowable. That, if anything, he was a question mark, and he was confident enough in his savvy to erase those questions early. "Nothing against Oregon State or anything, I just love the structure of what we have here," Mullaney says.

It did take a little getting used to. He arrived in Tuscaloosa with two duffel bags of belongings he retrieved hastily from Oregon State. He had nowhere to stay, and he gave off the impression of a football vagabond, thanks to his somewhat aggressive approach to facial hair. "He looked homeless with that beard he had," Alabama fifth-year senior quarterback Jacob Coker says. "It was terrible. He had the beard hair connecting to his chest hair and it was all nasty. He looked like a caveman."

Brandon Wade/AP

Mullaney nonetheless found temporary lodging on Coker's couch. Still, the culture shock on every level was bracing. People within the program offered to host him for July 4 festivities, though he had just shown up on campus and hardly knew a soul; Mullaney recognized the southern hospitality and appreciated it, but as a kid from the Los Angeles area, the sheer niceness of it was jarring. Likewise, in the estimation of Napier, his position coach, Mullaney was "taken back by the detail and level of preparation and workload," as well as the culture in the football building itself. So, shortly after arriving at Alabama, separate from the grocery store incident, Mullaney was on the phone with his mother and posing a question that was somewhat rhetorical and somewhat not.

What have I gotten myself into?

"Like any new place, there was just a lot thrown at me at once," Mullaney says. "I'm a person that keeps my emotions inside, doesn't like to express them. It finally all kind of boiled over. I was like, 'Mom … I don't know what's going on right now.' She told me to relax, it will all work itself out. And it did."

By the week leading up to Alabama's annihilation of Michigan State in its College Football Playoff semifinal (a game in which Mullaney had three catches for 53 yards), and probably long before that, Mullaney was indistinguishable from the other processed components to Nick Saban's latest would-be champion. He was comfortable and polite but unwilling to reveal much. His beard, which he grew out again during the season, had been reduced to a stubble, though that was mostly a Michelle Mullaney mandate for Senior Day. He insisted he spent very little time considering where he was not even a year before and where he was now, saying that he was "locked up in the hotel" and focused on preparing for the Spartans. Thinking about how well this all worked out could wait until it actually worked out precisely as well as he had hoped.

He was still, after all, in search of something at Alabama. "I wanted to go out on top for my senior year," Mullaney says. "I wanted to win."

As well as things have gone so far, he has one more game to find exactly what he was looking for.

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