“We have to walk around with this target on our back,” the former Bishop Luers standout said. “We were pretty much the joke of the Big Ten last year. We want to do a 360 this year. We want to be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten.”
That would be a huge turnaround given IU was, by most numbers, the conference's worst defense. It allowed 37.3 points and 458.7 yards, 215.0 through the air, en route to a 1-11 record.
Some of it was due to youth, some to bad communication and some to just some really good offenses (Wisconsin got 59 points and could have scored 20 more). No matter, Mullen said. Next season will be better.
“We're taking a lot of pride in what we do in practice,” he said. “We're playing hard, playing fast, so in the fall we'll be known as the best defense in the Big Ten.”
If that seems bold talk, consider similar preseason optimism came from Hoosier basketball players, and that turned out Sweet 16 fine.
Granted, IU football tradition will never be confused with that of basketball, but that misses the point.
"We're a lot better than we were," Mullen said.
Mullen got his college baptism by fire last fall. He played in all 12 games and recorded 18 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. He also averaged 15.9 yards on 12 kickoffs, with a long of 36 yards.
The 5-10, 178-pound Mullen wants more, and in spring practice, he's producing more. It helps that he's bigger, stronger and faster. He said he's gained about 15 pounds since last season.
“I'm moving better with the weight,” he said. “I've gained some speed. We have great strength and conditioning coaches. They wanted us to lose a lot of that fat and build muscle so we can move better. That's what I've done and that's what we've done as a team.
“I'm playing a lot faster. I'm driving routes better. I'm not looking back at the quarterback, but focusing more on my man.”
Mullen is working at cornerback and nickel back, with the bulk of his time as the fifth defensive back. Coach Kevin Wilson said that could change.
“From a mental standpoint, we don't want to over-teach him two spots,” Wilson said. “He's learning nickel — where do I fit on this run; what's my coverage; what's my responsibility; am I blitzing; what do I have?
“For a young guy, he's getting more consistent. In time, maybe he's one of our four best DBs. He's been pretty good. He's worked hard. He has great quickness. He's been competitive.”
Cornerback competition also includes junior Lawrence Barnett, another Luers graduate. It is not a two-man showdown for playing time, Mullen said.
“We don't have any spots (locked up) right now. Every position is open. Everybody is competing for everything.”
Competition will extend past the April 14 spring game, through summer workouts and into August training camp. Mullen said his key, just as it is for every Hoosier, starts with practice consistency.
“You have to practice every day at full speed. Make plays. Compete every day for a position.”