During one of Indiana's fall practices in 2019, veteran defensive back Marcelino Ball walked over to true freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who had his head down after giving up a pass completion. Ball put his arm around his younger teammate and talked to him.
That type of leadership from Ball and plenty of innate talent on the freshman's end helped turn Mullen into one of the best freshman corners in the country last season. Heading into this season, Ball and Mullen will be the keys cogs in a secondary that could take a significant leap forward thanks to an unfamiliar level of depth.
On the surface, the Hoosiers' pass defense wasn't particularly poor last season. Indiana ranked 46th nationally in passing yards given up and a solid 36th in the country in yards per pass attempt surrendered at just 7.05. However, Indiana gave up 8.6 yards per attempt in its five losses and ranked tied for 100th out of 130 FBS teams with just seven interceptions.
Cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby said creating big plays is a major key for the secondary's improvement this season. Taking advantage of opponents' mistakes is crucial in the Big Ten, which features some of the best passing offenses in the country.
“We need to do a better job of, when we have an opportunity to get an interception, make that defining play, to make it,” said Shelby, who has been on the Hoosiers' staff for 10 years. “I think that when its third and whatever, and they throw a ball out to the flat and (we're) in great position, we need to make that tackle.
“Or when the ball hits our hands, to make a big-time interception. We need game-changing plays. I think that's the next thing that we need to take that next step of being in the upper echelon of the league week in and week out.”
Shelby singled out Mullen, a Florida native and the younger brother of Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen, as a player he would like to see make more “defining plays” this year. Shelby pointed to several missed open-field tackles Mullen had against Purdue as evidence of Mullen's room to grow.
The thought of Mullen getting better is a scary one for Big Ten quarterbacks. As a freshman, the 5-foot-10, 176-pound corner led the Big Ten and was 11th in the country with 13 pass breakups on his way to Freshman All-American honors. Pro Football Focus ranks him the best returning cornerback in the Big Ten, but Shelby warned that Mullen needs to remain focused.
“Tiawan Mullen had his name in the paper and on the Internet, but he knows this: if he doesn't prepare in the right way and in the right manner that has helped him obtain this success then he has an opportunity to lose his job,” Shelby said. “Just like he came in last season and performed at a high level and took someone's job. He has to understand that the same thing that helped elevate him could also be his destruction if he doesn't do the little things it takes to prepare.”
While Mullen tries to make one side of the field a no-fly zone for opposing offenses, the Hoosiers have shuffled some others players around to try to create more big plays in the secondary.
Two of the most important positional adjustments are junior Jamar Johnson, who was a terrific playmaker as Ball's backup at the Husky position – a linebacker-safety hybrid in Indiana's 4-2-5 scheme – moving to free safety, and offensive jack-of-all-trades Reese Taylor moving opposite Mullen at corner.
The 6-1, 197-pound Johnson, had three sacks and two interceptions last year, and safeties coach Jason Jones thinks moving him to free safety and out of Ball's shadow at Husky will unlock his potential.
“I think it expands his football IQ and it helps him to understand the defense as a whole,” said Jones, who is in his first year at IU. “Now, there's still some learning to be done because it's a new position, but I think it's going to be really good for him down the road.
“That's because it's going to help him get a better understanding of the defense. When you understand the defense, you know there's times when I can be aggressive. I can take a chance. I can jump this route or right now I'm in man-to-man, we're blitzing, I can't be as aggressive.”
As for Taylor, the 2017 Indiana Mr. Football out of Indianapolis, he moved to cornerback last season but was hurt in fall camp and never completely settled in. He's a terrific athlete – he played quarterback and wide receiver on offense – and Shelby said that during Indiana's four spring practices this year he looked “ready to take off and be a focal point in the secondary.”
Indiana's entire secondary might be ready to take off in the fall.