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‘He’s just contagious’: Tiawan Mullen’s belief central in Indiana’s historic year

Tom Allen couldn’t finish a sentence without his players interrupting him, saying “We love you coach,” “Best coach in the nation,” or “Recruits, come play for this man.”

Tiawan Mullen. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

After Indiana’s 14-6 win in Madison, Wisconsin on Dec. 5, Allen tried to explain his postgame thoughts to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, but his players wouldn’t let him. Tiawan Mullen even tried to jump on Allen’s shoulders as the players ran to the locker room to celebrate their statement win to move to 6-1.

“[Allen] is just an exciting guy,” Mullen said. “He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but from the players he gets the credit he deserves. ...As we continue to win games this year, they see who the Hoosiers are and who the leader is of the Indiana program. That’s why everybody did that joyfully.”

Love Each Other, or LEO, has been Allen’s mantra since suddenly becoming the head coach at Indiana before the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl after Kevin Wilson’s resignation. And before the 2017 season, Allen said he had plans to win a Big Ten Championship at Indiana.

Some might have laughed at that statement, due to Indiana being the losingest team in FBS history, but not Mullen. Like Allen says nearly every week, it is not about one player, it is about the team. 

But perhaps no player has been more vocal in support of Allen than Mullen, a sophomore cornerback and one of the leaders of the defense. Mullen’s career in Bloomington started in the 2019 season, where Indiana went 8-4 en route to a Gator Bowl appearance.

Mullen has made a name for himself and become a fan-favorite in Bloomington in his two short years with the program, but his belief in Allen started far before then. 

Changing a program with contagious energy

While in high school, Mullen turned a 1-9 Coconut Creek program into a playoff team by his senior season, and is spearheading a similar turnaround at Indiana. 

Gerald Cox coached Mullen at Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and said Mullen’s contagious attitude was a main reason for his program’s turnaround. While Cox doesn't get to see Mullen every day now, he said this is something he still sees from Mullen at Indiana. 

“He’s contagious,” Cox said. “If you ever sit down and talk to him, you’re going to leave there loving the kid more than you did going in. A lot of his teammates I’m quite sure love him as a person, and it’s just easy to feed off of his energy.”

Against Wisconsin, Mullen blitzed off the edge and delivered a hit on quarterback Graham Mertz that sounded, as linebacker Micah McFadden described, like a gunshot on the field. Like his contagious attitude, this play was something Cox was used to seeing from Mullen.

“I said ‘Man, he did that same thing for me,’ so I’m familiar with that,” Cox said. “Once he makes his mind up...The kid has always been a gamer, he’s always been a full speed, 100 percent guy on every play.”

Cox is used to seeing these game-changing plays from Mullen now, but that was not always the case. As a sophomore in high school, Mullen had to compete to earn playing time. 

Cox said Mullen was behind Marquis Williams, who plays at the University of Pittsburgh, Stanley Garner, who spent his freshman season at the University of Kentucky, and Miguel Edwards, who played at the University of Oklahoma during his freshman year.

But even with future Division I talent ahead of him, Mullen found a way to make his presence felt on the field. In a midseason game during Mullen’s sophomore season, Cox said he made a play that he hasn’t seen from many players in his coaching career.

Mullen was defending an out route during Coconut Creek’s game against Cardinal Gibbons and made a quick burst. Mullen picked the ball off and took it to the opposite end zone for a touchdown. 

“I turned on the sideline and said, ‘That kid will not come off the field no more the rest of the season,’” Cox said. “‘I don’t care what nobody says. He’s starting.’”

This play stuck in Cox’s mind and was a reason he had to make a tough decision. Because of that play, Mullen became a starter for the rest of his sophomore season, as well as his final two years in high school. 

“Understanding DB play being a DB coach, I saw him break on the ball probably better than I have seen a lot of people throughout my coaching,” Cox said. 

Cox said besides Deatrick Nicholls, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2018, he has not seen this kind of play from anyone he has coached at that age. 

As a senior, Mullen was also named the team’s lone captain, simply because Cox said he didn’t need another captain. During his sophomore year, Cox said Mullen was a quiet kid, but as he developed he started to see confidence and leadership from Mullen.

“Nobody really threw to his side a lot, and he made a lot of plays when they did,” Cox said. “He’s a humble kid, so the confidence piece is really him knowing on the field he doesn’t back down from anybody.”

Similar to Mullen’s early belief in Allen, Cox said he was the first player to buy into what he was building. When Cox became the coach at Coconut Creek, he said Mullen was the first player to ask him a question.

It was a simple question. Cox said Mullen asked him why he came to Coconut Creek. Cox was able to sit down with Mullen and explain his message, which Mullen shared with the rest of the team. From that point on, Mullen bought in, and so did the rest of his teammates.

“He changed the program just by being himself and working,” Cox said. “Everybody else saw that and he knew what I was trying to do with the program, taking it to the playoffs and getting kids in school.”

Forming a personal connection

Mullen’s drive to be great is due to his family members who push him every day, according to Cox. Tiawan’s older brother Trayvon is currently a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders and has helped pave a path for Tiawan with his guidance.

Cox arrived at Coconut Creek the spring that Trayvon graduated high school, but he still sees Trayvon’s impact on Tiawan. Tiawan also has a younger brother, Trevell, who also plays cornerback for Coconut Creek in the 2022 graduating class.

Cox said a lot of people think Trevell could be the best out of all three Mullen brothers, which provides more motivation for Tiawan. Trevell currently holds offers from a number of schools, but Florida, Indiana and Oregon are at the top of the list, according to 247Sports.

“It creates nothing but constant competition,” Cox said. “It starts from their mom. The mom is a competitive person, so it all comes from her, and she only wants the best for them so that piece and she supports them in everything that they do.”

Tiawan played in the 2019 All-American Bowl and was rated as a four-star recruit. Mullen’s career at Coconut Creek included a first-team all-county selection, as well as five forced fumbles, 112 total tackles and 14 interceptions, three of which he returned for a touchdown.

This led Mullen to be ranked as the No. 43 cornerback nationally and the No. 48 prospect in Florida by Rivals. When Mullen was getting recruited in high school, Cox said he always knew Mullen had the talent to play Division I football, but it was about finding the right fit. 

Besides Indiana, Mullen went on official visits to Kansas State, Nebraska and Pittsburgh, and also received heavy interest from TCU according to Cox. Cox said when Mullen would come to him for advice, he would advise Mullen to make sure the coaches care about him as a person. That is exactly what Cox saw from Allen and Indiana cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby. 

They made an impression on me as far as caring about the person, not just caring about him as an athlete,” Cox said. “...And that for me was the biggest thing, and I tell that to all of my kids. Make sure that the decision that you make, those coaches care about you as a person.”

When Allen and Shelby recruited Mullen, Cox already knew the kind of people that wanted Mullen wearing the cream and crimson. Before becoming the head coach at Coconut Creek, Cox was an assistant coach at Miami Central High School, who won five state championships in six seasons from 2010 to 2015.

While at Miami Central, Cox coached Deatrick Nichols, who went on to play for Allen when he was the head coach at the University of South Florida. Nichols was the player Cox compared Mullen to when he made the memorable pick-six at Coconut Creek.

And when Allen came to recruit Nichols, he did something that Cox wouldn’t soon forget. Cox said Allen sat in the end zone by himself and watched Miami Central practice. After observing Nichols and the rest of the team, Allen went to talk to Cox, or as Cox remembers it, yell.

“He came up and was like, ‘Man, God, I love the energy!’” Cox said. “And I was looking at him at the time like, ‘OK,’ but ever since then, whenever we talk he’s always been genuine, always been about the guys on the team and making sure they’re taken care of.”

Flash forward a few years later and Allen had a similar message when recruiting Mullen. Cox knew the intent of Allen and Shelby, which was clear in his message to Mullen.

Since becoming the head coach at Indiana, Allen has succeeded in recruiting players from Florida. Mullen is one of 24 current Hoosiers who attended high school in the state of Florida. 

Cox said he believes Mullen’s commitment to Indiana was intriguing for other players in his class and a reason so many Florida players are making the trip to Bloomington. 

‘Nothing could break us’

Like his early years at Coconut Creek, it was a daunting task to help turn around Indiana, but Mullen has the perfect mindset to do so. 

“He’s always been a kid that one of his sayings was ‘I don’t believe in being a part of history, I believe in making history,’” Cox said. “That was one of the things he did at Creek. So ironically, he’s going to do it at Indiana too because that’s just how he is.”

Similar to Allen’s LEO mantra, Cox uses a similar phrase no matter what program he is coaching at. FAMILY: Forget About Me I Love You. 

Cox said this mentality is natural for Mullen because a similar message was preached to him in high school. And this type of attitude helped Mullen form relationships that have galvanized this Indiana team to accomplish a list of program-firsts in 2020.

It’s easy for him, but again, the relationship that he has established with the coaches as well as his teammates, it allows for that,” Cox said. “And coach Allen’s environment, it breeds that, and that’s the reason they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Indiana is off to a 6-1 start in the 2020 season with aspirations of competing in a New Year’s Six bowl game. The Hoosiers are 11-3 in their past 14 Big Ten games, which is the best 14-game stretch in program history. The Indiana defense currently leads the nation with 17 interceptions, and Mullen has been a major reason for this group’s success. 

“Our defense shows up every week,” Mullen said. “We don’t just try to turn it on for a certain team. It’s on for everybody and anybody. When we go out there and play, we just go out there and fly around and execute the calls.”

Mullen is tied for second on the team with fellow defensive back Jaylin Williams in interceptions with three. Mullen trails only McFadden in total tackles with 36, and is third amongst Hoosiers with three-and-a-half sacks. 

“The coaches let us go out and play freely,” Mullen said. “We play with vision, and when they let us do that we have to go out, improvise, make plays.”

Mullen has made his fair share of big plays this season and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is after the game. After Indiana’s 27-11 win over Maryland, Mullen talked about how Indiana’s scouting report on quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa helped the defense force 19 incompletions and three interceptions.

“[Tagovailoa] was just a one-read player,” Mullen said after the game. “Wherever he looked, that was the way he was going to throw the ball...Which way he looked is the way we wanted to attack.”

Mullen made a similar play on his strip-sack on Mertz. He said like Tagovailoa, Mertz is a young quarterback who has a tendency to lock his eyes on his target. 

“I knew I had a great shot, and I knew I was going to get one going into this game,” Mullen said. “I knew he didn’t see me, and I knew I had a clean shot.”

This play was a big momentum-shifter for Indiana, as the Hoosiers would recover the fumble and score a touchdown on the ensuing possession to take a 7-0 lead. For Mullen, knocking the ball out was his goal, and he knew he just had to execute the plan.

Part of what has made Indiana’s defense one of the best in the Big Ten this season has been its ability to learn from adversity. The Hoosiers blew a fourth-quarter lead to Michigan State last season, which is a game that has stuck in Mullen’s head.

Mullen said last year the team left a lot on the field and gave up plays they should not have. The Hoosiers fell to Michigan State 40-31 in 2019, but responded this year with a 24-0 statement win. In this game, Mullen intercepted two Rocky Lombardi passes, which he credits to Shelby’s coaching.

“I was in the right position, had the right technique, and had one the best cornerback coaches in the game, Brandon Shelby,” Mullen said. “I listened to him and he puts you in the right position to where all you have to do is go out there and execute. “

Mullen said a key to this year’s victory over Michigan State was a team-first mindset on defense. 

“This year as a unit we came together and the numbers were 11 strong out there,” Mullen said after this win. “Once everybody was together, headed in the right direction, nothing could break us. We improvised, played as a unit and the numbers were strong to come out with the win.”

The Hoosiers also responded well to their only loss of the season at Ohio State. Indiana was unable to mount an unthinkable comeback after 35-7 deficit, falling to the Buckeyes 42-35. But again, Indiana responded to adversity the following week in the 27-11 win over Maryland. 

This kind of response has been common in the eyes of Allen, though, especially when it comes to Mullen. Earlier in the season, Mullen gave up an uncharacteristic touchdown to Rutgers on a play where he simply got beat. Allen was surprised by this, due to Mullen’s ability to execute the defensive game plan week to week.

"I've never seen him do that. He lost the ball," Allen said. "I was like 'What are you doing?!' ... I can't imagine that happens ever again."

And like so many times before, Mullen and the Indiana defense responded to this mistake. Indiana has given up just one touchdown combined in three of the past four games. The Hoosiers shut out Michigan State, held Maryland to one touchdown and kept Wisconsin out of the end zone.

A shot at history

Indiana is currently ranked No. 12 in the nation according to the College Football Playoff rankings, and has a legitimate shot to play in a premier bowl game this season. The Old Oaken Bucket game on Dec. 12 was canceled due to Purdue and Indiana dealing with positive COVID-19 tests within the program.

This means Indiana’s final game of the regular season will likely come against Iowa in the Big Ten Champions Week on Dec. 19. Indiana has defeated three teams in Top 25 this season at the time of the game, but all three are now unranked.

Because of this, it is important for the Hoosiers to defeat Iowa in hopes of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Allen has preached the phrase “earmuffs and blinders” time and time again this year, in reference to the team’s focus on what it can control and not listening to outside noise.

Allen said football is the ultimate team game and that it will take a true team effort to accomplish program-firsts this year. But for Cox, he knows not many people can stop Mullen.

“His work ethic is probably second to probably a few and that’s being real,” Cox said. “...The only person that can stop him is going to be him and God.”

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