Richard Mullaney still can’t believe how it all worked out.
The Alabama receiver’s journey to the College Football Playoff championship game started at Thousand Oaks High, included a four-year stay at Oregon State and came to fruition after he joined the Crimson Tide this season as a graduate transfer.
He is regarded as a sage pass catcher for the Crimson Tide, which plays top-ranked Clemson on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“A crazy ride,” Mullaney said Saturday at media day.
Mullaney has 37 receptions, five for touchdowns, for an Alabama team that showed in its semifinal rout of Michigan State that the offense featured far more than Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry.
Mullaney caught three passes in Alabama’s 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory that showcased freshman wideout Calvin Ridley and sophomore receiver ArDarius Stewart.
Coaches and teammates say Mullaney’s value goes beyond the numbers.
With 2014 Biletnikoff Award winner Amari Cooper gone to the NFL, Coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin were searching for an experienced transfer who could contribute and tutor a thin and mostly inexperienced receiver corps.
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Mullaney has filled the role beyond expectations.
“I don’t think we’d be here today without him,” Kiffin said.
Mullaney, 22, never figured he would be playing for a Southeastern Conference power when he was setting receiving records in high school. He caught 122 passes as a senior in 2010.
“He never had a bad practice,” Thousand Oaks Coach Mike Leibin said. “There was a never day when he said, ‘I got mine. I’m going to relax. I don’t feel like working.’ ”
Mullaney attended a junior-day recruiting event at USC when Kiffin was coaching the Trojans, but was not offered a scholarship. His most serious Pac-12 Conference offers came from Oregon State and Washington.
Oregon State’s interest stemmed from one thing:
“Production,” former Beavers coach Mike Riley said.
Mullaney was a redshirt his first season at Corvallis, played as a backup as a redshirt freshman and caught 52 passes, including three for touchdowns, as a third-year sophomore.
In 2014, Mullaney had 18 catches before he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the sixth game.
Mullaney said he had mulled leaving to play his final season elsewhere but did not give it serious consideration until Riley left Oregon State to coach Nebraska. He went through spring practice under Coach Gary Andersen and decided to make the move.
“I didn’t know who was going to want me,” he said, “or what was going to happen.”
Word of Mullaney’s plan to leave Oregon State traveled through coaching circles, but college coaches could not speak with him until he was released.
Kiffin had watched film but called Riley for the scouting report on Mullaney. Riley, who played at Alabama, felt awkward speaking about a player at a school he had just left. But he sensed Mullaney was seeking an opportunity.
“I told them, ‘You’d love him because he’s coachable,’ ” Riley said. “You tell him something, and it happens on the field and he makes plays.”
Mullaney’s commitment process was a whirlwind: He was granted his release by Andersen on a Friday, graduated from Oregon State on Saturday, was on the phone with Kiffin on Sunday and was visiting with him in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Monday and Tuesday.
“He just said how young the receiving corps was and how they could use a guy like me,” Mullaney said. “He said all the right things I wanted to hear.”
Saban spoke with Mullaney via video conference on the second day of his visit and offered Mullaney an opportunity.
“It’s Alabama,” Mullaney said. “I just fell in love with it
Mullaney returned to the West Coast to gather some belongings before returning to Alabama for the start of school the following week. His father, Bob, said his son never wavered about his decision to leave the comfort of what he knew for the unknown.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I know I can do it,’ ” Bob Mullaney said. “That was the moment for me.”
Mullaney initially struggled with humidity — “I’m pedaling this [stationary] bike and I’m just dying,” he said — but he acclimated quickly, joined his teammates in workouts and learned the playbook.
He caught his first pass in the opener against Wisconsin.
It was actually happening. He was playing for Alabama.
“Going off to the sidelines after that play in the opener it kind of all hits you,” he said.
Mullaney’s most productive game came in Alabama’s only loss. He caught seven passes, two for touchdowns, in the Crimson Tide’s 43-37 defeat by Mississippi. The Crimson Tide has won 11 consecutive games since.
Mullaney’s locker is next to Ridley’s. The freshman said the fifth-year senior “knows everything” and sometimes assists him on the field with assignments during games.
“He knows even though he’s not playing the same position,” Ridley said. “Just like a quarterback.”
Quarterback Jake Coker said Mullaney brings stability and calm to the offense, especially when other receivers are confused.
“He figures it out and communicates real well out there,” Coker said. “He just provides leadership, and an old guy to kind of calm everybody down.”
Said Saban: “He’s made a lot of clutch catches, and even plays his position extremely well without the ball, which I think is sometimes overlooked, especially at his position, because it’s always about, ‘How many passes did he catch?’ ”
Mullaney would like to make a few receptions Monday night, when about 25 extended family members will be on hand to see his final college game.
But winning a title with the Crimson Tide is the main goal.
“This is the reason why I came here,” he said. “I wanted to go out my senior year on top. Hopefully, after Monday, that will happen.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesKlein