Mullen rises up the ranks of IU secondary

It took only a few games for true freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen to emerge as a pass-swatting fiend for Indiana — a short delay that sounds all too familiar to Mullen’s high school coach, Gerald Cox.

When Cox first arrived at Coconut Creek in 2016, there were two or three games where Mullen didn’t play. The diminutive sophomore was behind defensive backs bound for Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh. Then one went down with an injury. Another was suspended. Suddenly, Cox found himself turning to a 150-pound unknown, the younger brother of Clemson corner Trayvon Mullen.

But once the next Mullen stepped onto the field, there was no stepping off.

“The first series we put him out there, he jumped a curl route and took it for a touchdown,” Cox said. “From then on, he started for me every single game.”

Cox laughs because the speed of Mullen’s transition from reserve to starter was somewhat absurd. But Mullen’s four pass breakups in his last game for IU — holding Michigan State senior Darrell Stewart to zero receptions on six targets — isn’t all that surprising to Cox.

He’s seen this movie before.

By the end of Mullen’s sophomore season at Coconut Creek, he was a captain. As a junior, he was a captain, again, fueling a turnaround from 1-9 to 4-4. Senior year, Mullen was the sole voice of a squad that finished 6-5 and made the state playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.

As quick as he can jump a curl route, Mullen will pounce on an opportunity to play. Some athletes just aren’t fazed by the bright lights.

“I had confidence coming into college. It was just another game I was playing. It’s just football,” Mullen said. “I have older brothers, so going against those guys growing up and just playing football, (it’s) just what I love to do.

“The game is Monday through Friday. Saturday is just Fun Day for me.”

When Mullen talks about a game as a five-day process, Cox knows it’s not just talk. Mullen’s mother, Lucretia Peterman, kept her sons on a straight-and-narrow path. Tiawan, she said, was a “homebody,” going straight from home to school, school to football, football to home.

He steered clear of the distractions available to him in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., sometimes working out three times a day. He buried his head in playbooks and film study. Cox never had to worry about Mullen in the offseason.

“He’s going to be in bed, he’s going to be at home,” Cox said. “He’s not going to be doing the extra stuff that a lot of kids these days elect to do. He knows what his goals are and he’s not going to be deterred from those goals.”

Tiawan wanted to be a football player, and he had a pretty good one to compete against. His older brother, Trayvon, won a national championship at Clemson and was eventually picked in the second round by the Raiders.

Competing against Trayvon installed some toughness in Tiawan, who had to punch above his weight. One-on-one battles resulted in more than a few losses for the younger brother.

“I had to man up,” Mullen said.

Sheer will is a powerful thing.

Cox watched Mullen match up with receivers a half-foot taller, 40 to 50 pounds heavier, and keep them in check with precise footwork and technique. Mullen’s coaches were also on their toes, because their star corner’s film study was so intense, he’d often ask questions that were well beyond his individual responsibilities.

He’d digest the strengths and weaknesses of opposing receivers and return to the sideline with specific coverages he’d want to try.

“He’s going to watch as much film as a coach, he’s going to be in the playbook as much as a coach,” Cox said. “As a coach, you have to be on your P’s and Q’s or he’ll get you.”

That is what Cox told IU cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby when the Hoosiers beat out Nebraska, TCU, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, and Kansas State, among others, for Mullen’s services. Shelby had won a quick study.

The Hoosiers were hopeful their U.S. Army All-American — a player who picked 14 passes in the prep ranks — could play right away. But it’s never a guarantee that athleticism and ball skills displayed on a high school field will immediately transfer to the college level.

Again, Mullen is a rare type. At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he’s allowed just one catch on 12 quarterback targets. On this week’s depth chart, Mullen sits right behind a fifth-senior, Andre Brown, at one cornerback spot.

“Fortunately for us and for him, he’s a player that the big stage comes natural,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “He just elevates his game to the level of competition.”

And it’s his mission to elevate those around him.

He put his head together with Cox to invent “Claw Nation” as a moniker for the Coconut Creek Cougars, scrappy and determined. When he arrived in Bloomington, he coined the phrase “New Wave” for the freshman class.

“The swagger, the wave, the confidence,” Mullen said. “Where I come from, Florida, you have to compete every game.”

Thus far, he’s done that for IU. But after one breakout performance at Michigan State, he hasn’t quite arrived.

Mullen knows that. IU coach Tom Allen, who sent an army of defensive assistants to recruit Mullen, knows there is potential to be tapped.

“He’s got a long way to go with regards to being a complete Big Ten football player because there’s a lot to it,” Allen said. “But he cares a bunch and works his tail off and does everything that we ask him to do.”

For anyone who knows Mullen, that isn’t surprising to hear.

Whenever Mullen gets on the field, coaches have a hard time taking him off.

“It’s his will,” Cox said. “When he was a sophomore, he was our captain. Once he got on the field, he spoke up more than the other guys, highly recruited guys. His want-to and his drive help him rise to the occasion.

“He just wants to.”


  1. Mullen is a rare talent for IUFB and he should get better each week this season. He showed he was much better than the older corners ahead of him and I hope we see Mullen on the field much more in coming games. Unless IU plays a no huddle team I see no reason Mullen shouldn’t be in on every play. I am tired of seeing our older corners not making plays.

  2. The early returns on Mullen indicate he might be the biggest gem of the 2019 recruiting class for IU. Mullen already look like he’s one of the best corners IU has had in recent memory.

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