At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, if you believe those measurements, nothing stands out about Tiawan Mullen when he is on the sidelines.
In fact, when he is mixed in with an entire Big Ten football team, you might miss Mullen altogether.
But when the true freshman cornerback crosses the white lines and you put him out on an island?
Well, you notice.
Michigan State fifth year senior wide receiver Darnell Stewart entered his matchup against Indiana tied for ninth in the nation with 7.5 receptions per game.
According to IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, the 6-foot-2 and 216 pound Stewart was 0-for-6 when he was targeted while matched up against Mullen.
“He (Mullen) is just a player that the big stage comes natural to him,” Wommack said. “He just elevates his game to the level of the competition.”
And whatever he may lack in size, Mullen more than makes up for with his other natural gifts according to his defensive coordinator.
“He certainly is not the biggest guy when he walks out there,” Wommack said. “Athletically he is a very gifted athlete.”
Mullen was a priority four-star recruit for IU out of Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
As the originator of the moniker “New Wave” in reference to IU’s highly touted 2019 recruiting class, Mullen came to Bloomington with some swagger.
But like all freshman, how that would translate to the football field wasn’t entirely clear.
“You really never know how a freshman is going to respond when they actually get to campus,” head coach Tom Allen said.
But there was one thing about Mullen that stood out to Allen and the IU coaching staff, even going back to his high school days.
“Very humble, doesn’t talk a lot, isn’t a real loud guy,” Allen said. “But extremely confident.”
Mullen said he arrived on campus knowing that he can compete at this level.
“Entering college I always had the confidence,” Mullen said. “It just happens to be that game that I showed everybody that I can compete (against Michigan State).”
Part of that confidence may stem from going up against elite athletes his entire life. In some ways, playing in the Big Ten is a step down for Mullen.
Mullen’s brother Trayvon played football at Clemson and is currently a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders. He also has a younger brother that is on the power five college football path.
Oh, and his cousin? Baltimore Ravens’ starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Mullen credits his family pedigree for his early success, but he also points to preparation and coaching during the week for getting him ready for the big stage.
“He (cornerback coach Brandon Shelby) puts me in the right position and the right technique form to go out there and execute,” Mullen said.
“The game is Monday through Friday. Saturday is just fun day for me.”
While Mullen was a top recruit for the Hoosiers, the opportunity he was offered at IU didn’t come with any guarantees of early playing time.
“He wasn’t promised any playing time early, but he was promised the opportunity to come and compete to play,” Allen said. “He got his shot and he took advantage of it.”
Mullen has appeared in all five games for Indiana and leads the team with five pass breakups. Four of those came against the Spartans.
On the season Mullen has allowed just one catch in twelve targets according to Pro Football Focus.
It may be too early to label him a shut down corner, but it isn’t too early to recognize that Mullen is answering the bell as a true freshman.
“At the end of the day you either step up and makes plays, or you don’t, and Tiawan Mullen is making plays right now,” Wommack said.
While the early returns are positive for Mullen, that also creates the next challenge.
Mullen entered the Michigan State game as a relative unknown, but he won’t have that luxury going forward.
“Now he’s no longer a guy that people may not know as much about,” Allen said.
“He’s got a long way to go when it comes to being a complete Big Ten football player because there is a lot to it, but he cares a bunch, competes his tail off, and he’s an awesome young man.”
Mullen of course is not phased by any of it.
Ready for the next challenge, he has his sights set higher than you might expect for a true freshman cornerback.
“I feel like I can be one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten,” Mullen said.
Extremely confident indeed.
But with Mullen’s early body of work and natural gifts, few are going to doubt that statement.
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