Mullen turns sack artist for Hoosier defense

Early in his Indiana career, Tiawan Mullen has quickly checked off a list of useful skills.

For one, the sophomore is a smooth operator at cornerback, trailing receivers like a shadow. The 5-foot-10, 176-pounder is not afraid to run down the field on special teams, either, launching his shoulder pads into a return man’s ankles. Same in the run game.

Yet on the road at Rutgers, Mullen added another specialty to the mix: sacker of quarterbacks. Three times, Mullen participated in a takedown of Noah Vedral, blitzing off the edge and corraling the Scarlet Knight’s signal caller.

Mullen hadn’t registered a sack in his career before his first 2.5 came at SHI Stadium. But some qualities make the Hoosier corner an unlikely but effective edge-rusher.

“He’s a guy that is crafty, and explosive,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “He blitzes about two inches off the ground, so he’s hard to pick up. That can always be a difficult thing, as well, when you play low and fast and you find creative ways to get in the backfield.”

For a defense that likes to bring pressure, the corner blitz has played a big role in IU’s first two wins of 2020, along with the usual d-line stunts, and linebackers shooting gaps. Mullen has prominently entered the mix, though, because he’s being used as IU’s hybrid “husky” in certain sub-packages, helping fill the void left by senior Marcelino Ball’s season-ending ACL injury.

Just don’t call him a husky. If Wommack has tried, Mullen has insisted on calling himself a “nickel back.”  He just can’t see himself in a true linebacker/safety like Ball, a 220-pound specimen who runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Mullen is also 33 pounds away from balancing a scale with Ball’s truest replacement, redshirt junior Bryant Fitzgerald.

“That’s just what I was brought up on, and they respect the decision,” said a smiling Mullen, who immediately shook his head “no” when the word “husky” was mentioned. “I just feel like the husky is more, like, bulky guys like ‘Lino and Fitz. But me, I’m just a nickel back, and that’s just what I wanted to be called.”

Mullen will cover a receiver in the slot, or the boundary. Whatever is needed. He will hunt quarterbacks in the backfield, as well, if that’s what Wommack desires.

It’s the versatility and reliability of IU’s secondary that makes these pressures possible in the first place. Along with juniors Jaylin Williams and Reese Taylor, there is a trio of corners Wommack can trust on the back end, allowing pressures to get home. Junior safeties Devon Matthews and Jamar Johnson have also been impressive early.

In the offseason, Wommack just wanted to find ways to maximize a maturing secondary, especially when it came to coverage schemes.

“Changing things up enough where we are not in man coverage as much,” Wommack said. “I thought at times we were a little too man-oriented, and we had some great pressures and great blitzes, but the ball was coming out before we could get there, and the offense knew what we were in. Obviously, as we looked at that in the offseason, we had to do a better job of that schematically, and it has made our players’ production better when we are actually in man coverage.”

IU just wants to throw multiple looks at a quarterback, obscuring which windows are open from play to play, with blitzers coming from different angles on snap to snap. Now that the Hoosiers have put the nickel-back blitz on film, they may have to adjust who is coming and when for Michigan’s Joe Milton.

But Mullen isn’t the easiest target for blockers to pick up, either. On his second sack at Rutgers, tight end Matt Alaimo appeared to be flowing into the flat as a safety valve, and he noticed Mullen sprinting in, just a tad too late. By the time Alaimo had doubled back to pass-block, Mullen had found his lane.

Mullen shot inside of the tight end, laying out for Vedral’s left ankle, tripping him up.

“I think it was effective because we held the disguise,” Mullen said. “I didn’t show any details that I was coming, and when it was time to come, I improvised and got the quarterback down.”

Just add it to a long list of things Mullen can do well. After leading the Big Ten in pass breakups as a freshman, racking up 13, Mullen’s sack outburst currently has him ranked fourth in the Big Ten in quarterback takedowns.

While Mullen is still searching for his first career interception, it only seems like a matter of time.

“He has some of the best feet I’ve ever seen,” IU linebacker Micah McFadden said. “He can just read a player. He doesn’t overplay anything. He doesn’t try to do more than he has to do, and I think that helps him see routes better, and he can hold off windows.

“He’s not always snatching a bunch of interceptions, or anything like that, but he’s thinning the windows and he’s making a lot of PBUs that are crucial.”

Mullen just plays within that 5-10, 176-pound frame of his.

The frame of a hard-covering, hard-blitzing nickel back.

“I’m going out there and making plays when my name is called. I don’t try to be Superman,” Mullen said. “I try to do my job and just make sure everything falls (into) place like it’s supposed to be.”

7 comments

  1. Mullen has shown himself to be special for IU and every recruit like him is how IU can move up in the B1G. IU seems to have hit on a number of DBs that are now on team along with RB, receivers, QBs, DL, and LBs. The area we haven’t hit on enough is the OL but even there IU has hit on a couple over the years.

    The defense is doing a very good job so far and IU really needs them to do even better by being more consistent. This defense has the ability to be a very special defense helping IU have a special season. IU can continue building a special season by defeating Michigan Saturday. It would show IU has continued to improve going into MSU the following week.

  2. I think the key for the defense is to plug the running lanes as much as possible. They have great RBs and a QB that can run. The defense has struggled on RPOs where the QB keeps it and runs. PSU and Rutgers got off some solid runs out of those plays. Our DE tend to suck in too much on those instead of trying to play contain and stretch those guys out until help shows up. Oh, and no stupid roughing the passer penalties on 3rd and long.

    1. The problem is our DC sends DE in to inside or off the OL doing what I am not sure. We will see this week if that changes but I doubt it.

  3. I expect we’ll see Mullen playing on Sundays in two years. Now we just have to keep recruiting guys like him every year. He should be the poster-child for IU FB recruiting.

    As for O-linemen, I like the Wisconsin model. Get big bodied, athletic 3-star guys, even if they haven’t played a lot of Football in HS. Go after guys who played HS BB if necessary. Then fatten them up and develop them into Big-Ten quality O-linemen. IU should have at least 15 O-linemen on the roster each season.

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