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Indiana’s Tiawan Mullen did a little bit of everything to become groundbreaking Hoosier cornerback

Tiawan Mullen and Brandon Shelby both figured there had to have been somebody.

Indiana’s football history isn’t exactly awash in triumph and from both an individual and collective standpoint, the Hoosiers’ trophy case is a sparse one. But surely, they figured, a program that had been playing Big Ten football since 1887 had to have lucked into a first-team All-American cornerback somewhere in its history.

“I actually asked (Indiana football sports information director Jeff) Keag, who’s the other guy that’s done it?” said Shelby, who is in his 10th season as Indiana’s cornerbacks coach.

The answer, though, was no one one. At least until Wednesday when the sophomore Mullen was named first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. Eric Allen had made it as a third-team All-American in 1996 and Tim Wilbur made the second team in 1980, but that’s the closest any Hoosier corners have come to matching Mullen’s honor. In fact, no Indiana defensive player has been named first-team All-American since Jim Sniadecki in 1968.

“I never knew,” Shelby said during a Zoom press conference from Tampa, Fla., where the Hoosiers are preparing to play Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl on Saturday. “I don’t think there’s a more fitting person to be the first. He’s a humble guy. He’s very, very grateful. It goes to tell young people that when you do things right, you treat people right, you get blessed. He’s a proven example of that.”

It’s meaningful as well to Mullen, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native, who came to Indiana with hopes of changing the program. It’s well-documented that on his recruiting visit, he read off a note card the length of the droughts Indiana had had since its last bowl victory and last Big Ten championship and told coach Tom Allen he wanted to change that. He had personal goals for himself, and says he still wants to win the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back, but he’d never considered what this sort of milestone would mean.

“It still hasn’t hit me yet,” Mullen said. “Probably 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, I’ll realize how much it means.”

It’s proof that at least one of the major outlets that releases All-America teams realized the impact Mullen has had on the Hoosiers’ groundbreaking season. In the year of COVID-19, it’s difficult to gauge a player’s value by statistics because of the variances in the number of games teams have played, and it’s clear Mullen was left out of the AP All-America voting in large part because the Hoosiers only played seven games.

But Mullen was arguably the biggest reason the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in both interceptions and sacks and why they finished fourth in the league in scoring defense, allowing just 19.4 points per game en route to a 6-1 record. He recorded three interceptions and four pass break-ups himself, and proved to be one of the nation’s most effective cornerbacks on the blitz with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.

The 5-foot-10, 176-pounder was excellent in pass coverage, but was also fearless against the run and tackling in the open field. He finished second on the roster with 36 tackles behind AP third-team all-American linebacker Micah McFadden and tied for second in solo tackles with 25. The Hoosiers used him at cornerback but also in the nickel/Husky position left open when Marcelino Ball was injured before the season.

“To become an All-American, I think you have to do a lot of things the right way,” Shelby said. “When you watch him out on the field, when he’s out at corner, he’s playing press-man, off-man, a little bit of Cover 2. When he’s at the nickel position, he’s blitzing. The nickel is kind of like a linebacker. You’re taking a linebacker off and putting another DB in there. What that committee got to see is a guy who does so many different things. When you put that all together, that equals an All-American.”

And though All-America status is an individual honor, it’s a designation that matters to Indiana as a program, particularly because Mullen bought into playing multiple roles and doing what the Hoosiers asked him to do. For Indiana coach Tom Allen, it gives him an example to point to in both recruiting and in player development about the value of surrendering to the team concept.

“What I tell them is, ‘When you submit to this and totally buy in to this, when the team does well, I believe, individuals get recognized,” Allen said. “That’s what’s happening. When you flip it and individuals try to make it about themselves and get the recognition themselves and put that in front of the team, usually they don’t get the individual recognition and the team doesn’t do well. It’s an amazing phenomenon that when you put the team first and become a team guy, the team does well and the individuals get recognized.”

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