Darren Hiller doesn’t keep close watch over Tiawan Mullen during practice. And why would he? Hiller, Indiana’s offensive line coach, has other, larger men drawing his attention.
But that doesn’t mean that Hiller is blind to Mullen’s effect on IU’s football program. Inside IU’s locker room, Hiller sees it every day.
“You talk about LEO and unselfishness and a team football player, he’s one of my favorite guys on the football team,” Hiller said. “He’s all in. He’s positive. I’ve never heard the young man say a negative word. He’s always positive.”
And he’s routinely making positive plays, too, as a versatile contributor to IU’s upstart defense. A year after leading the Big Ten in pass breakups, Mullen is pacing Indiana’s defense in another category.
Mullen’s 2.5 sacks through three games not only leads the Hoosiers, it ranks him fourth in the conference — he’s only one behind league leader Boye Mafe of Minnesota.
So how does Mullen make the most of his blitz opportunities? A combination of skills and attributes are at work.
“He’s 5-foot-9, so he hides behind the big old shoulders up in there,” IU corners coach Brandon Shelby said. “He’s really athletic. He can distort his body to twist and turn and get low underneath those O-linemen. He’s also just a really good football player. When you add that up in an athletic guy who can make moves (and) is very deceptive with his speed, those are the reasons he’s been successful.”
With Mullen, there are other intangible qualities to consider, as well.
Growing up around accomplished players — his brother, Trayvon, played corner at Clemson and is currently with the Las Vegas Raiders, while his cousin is (yes, the) Lamar Jackson — shaped Mullen into the playmaker he has become for Indiana.
Inside of it all, Mullen, the second-highest rated prospect in IU’s 2019 recruiting class, simply has a will to assert himself where he’s needed.
“Playing defense, and corner, and blitzing is about heart,” Shelby said. “A scared man can’t make plays.”
The evidence shows that Mullen is, in fact, not scared. Far from it. But that doesn’t mean he’s flawless, either.
“Every opposing team knows who he is,” Shelby said. “They’re going to dissect his game and see where his weakness is. The last two weeks, we’ve given up that inside fade route, so he’s worked hard this week trying to make sure that he ties that down. He’s going to get it until he stops it. He knows that. (Michigan State is going to try) this week, guaranteed, and he needs to make sure he’s doing things this week at practice, and after practice when it’s not me watching him every five minutes.”
Even so, it doesn’t take much visual inspection to see Mullen for what he is.
Just ask Hiller.
“He’s unselfish,” Hiller said. “He’s awesome. He’s an awesome kid. I love him.”