It has seldom been a position of strength at Indiana. But this year, IU has good reason to be excited about its cornerbacks.
That’s because the group of Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams have as much upside as any trio of corners Indiana has deployed in recent memory. Sure, that may be a low bar, but for an Indiana secondary that has long needed a talent upgrade on the outside, an advancement appears to have taken hold.
“We have a great foundation,” position coach Brandon Shelby said. “We have some guys that have been on the football field, they know the checks, they know what it takes to win in the Big Ten.”
That starts with Mullen, whose breakout freshman year last fall has raised expectations for his encore at Indiana. The 5-foot-10 newcomer led the Big Ten, finished second among freshmen nationally and ranked 11th in the country with 13 breakups in 2019. Indeed, Mullen’s opening act wasn’t merely good by first-year standards. It was good by virtually every measure. Pro Football Focus also rated Mullen and Michigan’s Ambry Thomas as the Big Ten’s highest-graded returning corners across all classes.
It also doesn’t feel like Mullen’s first season will be a fluke. A former four-star recruit, Mullen comes from good bloodlines. His older brother, Trayvon, starred at Clemson and now plays for the Las Vegas Raiders. Shelby also credits Mullen’s upbringing on the highly-competitive prep football terrain in Florida for preparing him for the Big Ten level.
And Mullen has also made it clear to his coaches that he believes he has barely scratched the surface of his potential.
“To take the next step I think, ultimately, he needs to learn the game of football in a way that (he understands) how coordinators think, understand what the whole playbook encompasses,” Shelby said. “All those guys are kind of in the same group. When you look at Jaylin, Reese and Tiawan, I teach a lot of these guys to study pictures, and when you see a picture you make this check. A lot of times they don’t know what this check means to everybody else. So, for him to take the next step, he needs to understand that when I say this check, it makes the D-line do this, this tells the linebacker to do this. That way it can encompass the whole defense. When you’re a true freshman you have to break it down. You can’t give them the whole cow. You have to teach them, step by step by step. And now I think he’s at the point where he wants it.”
Taylor seems to have found a home at the position after bouncing between offense and defense as a freshman. The junior dealt with injuries during his sophomore year, but came on strong during the second half of the season. He earned IU’s defensive player of the week honor after making three tackles and recording the game-sealing interception at Maryland, then posted three stops, including one for loss, and one breakup in his first career start on Nov. 30 at Purdue.
And after watching Taylor perform in IU’s four practices this spring, Shelby believes the Indianapolis native is ready to make a name for himself, too.
“Reese brings some intangible things that a lot of people can’t do,” Shelby said. “Very rarely do you see a guy that can go from playing offense and then six months later transition to a corner and really be effective. He got injured early on in training camp. It prevented him from taking off. But the one thing you see from him is you see a tough guy who understands football. He’s a good leader because he communicated as a quarterback. (He commands) pure respect because not only does he back it up on the field, he has the name, the clout that goes along with it. He’s been a guy that’s kind of always been in the limelight. He likes competition, he’s a tough guy and what I saw last year ... he is ready to take off and be a focal point in the secondary.”
Williams, Taylor’s classmate, is also a player to watch. Although Taylor might be a bit better against the run, Williams might have more upside in coverage. He might also be one of IU’s fastest players. Williams started seven of the 13 games in which he appeared in 2019, posting 19 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups.
The breakups are nice, of course, but Indiana needs more interceptions from its secondary in 2020. The Hoosiers posted seven picks last fall, two of which came from corners. It’s an area where Shelby wants to see marked improvement in the coming season.
“We need to do a better job of, when we have an opportunity to get an interception, make that defining play,” Shelby said.
The good thing, Shelby believes, is that he has the players capable of making them.
“Right now,” Shelby said, “we got three guys where, if we had to play tomorrow, I feel comfortable with going out and playing, helping us continue the path that we’re on from last year.”