Tipoff: Indiana State at Indiana, 8 p.m. Saturday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Kenny Mullen wasn't in a take-charge mood. He was a young Indiana Hoosier hoping to earn his way into the starting lineup. Leadership was for older guys.
And yet …
Mullen is a starting cornerback entering Saturday's season opener against Indiana State. More than that, the former Bishop Luers standout is one of the Hoosiers' designated leaders. No matter that he's just a sophomore with still limited playing experience. He has that intangible that separates him from the rest.
“His teammates respect him as a leader,” cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby says. “Not only does he talk the talk, he walks the walk. Hopefully he keeps pushing it so he becomes one of the best corners in the Big Ten.”
And if this leadership role was unexpected, Mullen didn't shy away from it.
“It's a big label,” he says. “It's a big title. I took that responsibility and made the best of it.”
The aftermath of last year's 1-11 record left coach Kevin Wilson looking for answers. One was targeting leaders, crucial for a young team that started as many as 12 true freshmen in a game last season, the most by any major college team.
“We identified (Mullen) as one of the best leaders,” Wilson said. “His body language when he was in front of the team was very positive. He has a knack of communicating with players when they're not doing well, but it doesn't sound like he's complaining or putting guys down. It's his DNA, the way he's been raised, the way God blessed him. He has a pretty high standard. For a young kid, his leadership strength and communications skills are pretty high.”
Is it rare to find it in so young a player?
“It's very rare,” Shelby says. “The great thing about him is that he played at an early age. At a lot of programs they redshirt you as a freshman, get you a year to mature, get you a year to go to college and see the expectations. He came right out of high school and was thrown into stuff he didn't know anything about.
“Luers is a good school. They're so talented that their talent level is better than most teams they play. It's different when you come to a big-time conference like this and play the talent we do year in and year out and have to practice every day at a high level. You can't coast and expect to be good. He's a good kid and knows how to handle himself and has been able to adjust to it -- the hard coaching; the play every day in practice. I'm excited about where he's going.”
Adds Wilson: “As young as we are, leadership has got to come from somewhere. We don't have a lot of seniors. Of the 100 guys on a team, I don't know know if you're ever going to have one general as a player. You'll more likely have a bunch of lieutenants
“Kenny's performance, his communication and his standard were high. (His leadership role) wasn't necessarily by design, but it worked out that way. Hopefully he'll be a great leader two to three years down the road.
Mullen was mostly a nickel back last season, which meant he came in on obvious passing downs. He played in all 12 games, started two and totaled 14 tackles, two sacks and one pass break up.
This season he moved to cornerback. He's set to start ahead of veteran Greg Heban.
“He's been solid,” Wilson says. “We're counting on him making strides and having a better year.”
Mullen is already better, Shelby adds.
“His body has changed. His demeanor has changed. His confidence level has changed. Those are all things at corner you've got to have, and he has them.
“He's still a younger guy playing against guys 23 to 24 years old. He's got to be able to physically maintain. There's a reason why they call it the Big Ten. You've got to be big because you're going to face some big, physical receivers who can run. So you've got to be able to make a tackle and not wither away as they keep pounding you.”
Co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler doesn't figure Mullen will wither.
“He benches 360 pounds,” Ekeler says. “He's probably the strongest cornerback in the country. He runs a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash). The kid can run, he's strong, he's gaining confidence and he's a tremendous leader. Add all those qualities up and he's got a chance to be pretty good.”
Adds Mullen: “I just want the best for the team and for me. I want to go to a bowl, win a bowl, be a top-two or top-three team in the Big Ten.”
Saturday will indicate that likelihood. Indiana State, once one of the worst teams in the country regardless of division, was 6-5 last season. Tailback Shakir Bell rushed for 1,670 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He will be a challenge for a defense still smarting after allowing a Big Ten-worst 37.4 points a game last season.
“We're carrying a chip on our shoulder,” Mullen says. “A lot of people think our secondary, our defense, was the worst they've seen. We're worked in the off season. We'll let our actions show we've improved.”