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Last updated: Thu. Apr. 10, 2014 - 01:01 am EDT

COLUMN

No joke – IU's Mullen sees big-striding defense

Ex-Luers standout needs to make plays

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BLOOMINGTON -- Cornerback Kenny Mullen tires of the questions, jokes and putdowns. Indiana's beyond-bad defense leaves a hurt that won't go away.

Is it motivation?

You'd better believe it.

Will it make a difference in what could be a difference-making season?

We'll see.

“It sucks to hear about how poor our defense has played,” Mullen says. “We want to be the strength of this team. We want to be better than the offense. We want to be the talk of the town. We prepare to do that every day -- work hard, learn in the film room, learn the playbook and transfer that to the field.”

Mullen, a former Bishop Luers standout, prepares for a breakthrough senior season. He's played on three of the worst defenses in the history of this long-struggling program (last season might have been the worst after allowing 38.8 points and 529.7 total yards a game), but out of those struggles comes hope that reward is in sight.

The Hoosiers have a new defensive coordinator (Brian Knorr); a new scheme (a 3-4 front); a more aggressive approach (blitzes could come from anywhere by anybody); a new safeties coach (Noah Joseph); more experience (nine returning starters); a new defensive line coach (Larry McDaniel); and as much talent as this unit has had in a generation.

“I think this year our defense will show big strides in our standards and what we're trying to accomplish,” Mullen says. “Coach Knorr (has) done a great job in teaching us, teaching us schemes and transferring it to the field.

“We've been giving the offense a lot of problems, and that's a good offense. It's the best in the Big Ten, so if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be a good defense and hard to compete with.”

Yes, it's spring, when hope is everywhere and fall reality is months away, so while Mullen is a realist (you don't go from reserve to starter to reserve without learning to keep perspective), he still dreams big. IU has led the Big Ten in passing the last two seasons. Last year it averaged 38.4 points, among the best in the nation.

If the defense could just be average …

“This year we know we'll be a bowl team,” Mullen says. “We won't settle for anything less. The offense is very competitive. The defense is very competitive. We all want the same thing. We want to go to a bowl game. Not just a bowl game. We want to be at the top in the nation. That's what we're shooting for.”

For the record, IU has been to only one bowl in the last 20 years -- in 2007 when it got hammered by Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl. The Hoosiers were 5-7 last year and missed out on bowl eligibility by one game.

What will Mullen's role in this be? While he's unlikely to beat returning cornerback starters Tim Bennett (honorable mention All-Big Ten, nation-leading 20 pass breakups, 21 passes defended, 73 tackles, one interception) and Michael Hunter (42 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups), he's positioned to see plenty of action.

“For Kenny, it's just making plays,” Knorr says. “When the guy with the ball comes to him, get the guy down. Kenny has to be that guy who competes for a starting job, who also can be our nickel guy, a guy who gets on the field when teams start using three to four receivers.”

Last year Mullen played in all 12 games as a nickelback and on special teams. He totaled eight tackles and two pass breakups. That was a drop from his numbers as a freshman (18 tackles) and a sophomore (33 tackles, four pass breakups).

But that was under previous defensive coordinator Doug Mallory. With Knorr, it's a new opportunity.

“Coach Knorr is one of those guys that if you make plays, he'll play you,” Mullen says. “He told me to keep making plays, do what I do. That's good enough for me.

“I feel I've had a good spring. I know I have a lot of improvement to do. So far, so good. I'll keep looking to push myself, better myself, better my teammates and take the next step.”

That step includes watching plenty of film.

“I take my iPad everywhere,” Mullen says. “I'll just sit down somewhere and watch. It's like being in class. You have to study, take notes and learn. Knowing the quarterback's tendencies, the receivers' tendencies, will make me a better player.”

For instance:

“It's knowing the (coverage) rotation,” Mullen says. “Quarterbacks see the rotation and throw away from it, so you have to know the route recognition, route combinations. Knowing where to be and when to be there.

“It's just learning the game. There was stuff I needed to know and now, getting ready for my fourth year, I know them. Now it's just making the plays, like Coach Knorr wants us to do.”

And if that means blitzing the quarterback, all the better.

“The 3-4 can throw off the offense because they don't know where the pressure is coming from,” Mullen says.

“We'll bring a lot of pressure. It could be the corners, the safeties, the linebackers. Plus, our defensive line is playing well. We're getting pressure picks and coverage sacks, so it's working hand-in-hand.”

If it works well enough, the jokes will stop, the questions will be answered and putdowns will turn to praise.

And that's no dream.

pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.


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