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BLOOMINGTON -- For Kenny Mullen, personal is we, individual is team.
He's an Indiana senior now, once a cornerback starter, now a versatile reserve, locked into one-for-all, all-for-one mode.
Yes, that matters.
Ask this former Bishop Luers standout about his personal goals and it morphs into collective achievement.
“It's the team goals. I want to get to a bowl game and leave a legacy for the young guys that they can build on. Keep building this program and this team until Indiana is at the top of the Big Ten, at the top of the nation.”
Yes, it's August, when all things seem possible and every team sees a way to college football's mountaintop.
But for Mullen and the rest of the Hoosiers, it seems real as a Peyton and Eli Manning rap video. The poor defensive performances over the last three seasons that made them a national punchline are motivators. Nothing more.
“It's knowing that are backs are against the wall, that it's us against the world,” Mullen says. “That's all we need. We don't need any outsiders and what they think. It's not what we care about. What anybody says about the past -- the 1-11 record, the 4-8 record, the defense -- we don't care. We're worried about now and what we see in practice and in meetings. There's a lot of motivation to prove people wrong. They have their opinion. We're ready to show the world what IU is about.”
Year 4 of the Kevin Wilson era has the Hoosiers ready to put substance to Mullen's words. This is a veteran group, a talented team, and if it's not in Alabama-conquers-all mode, it doesn't have to be.
Even with one of the Big Ten's most rugged schedules (most indicators rate it third in the conference and in the top 30 nationally), the Hoosiers are positioned to win six to seven games and make a bowl for the first time since 2007.
The offense should again rate among the Big Ten's best, and all signs point to a defense improved well beyond recent patsy status.
Mullen has a role and if it won't have him imitating, say, Rod Woodson, the NFL Hall of Fame defensive back who dominated at Snider, at Purdue and then mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that doesn't mean it will lack significance.
Wilson says Mullen is the team's No. 3 cornerback behind Tim Bennett and Michael Hunter, with freshman Donovan Clark, a former South Side standout, moving up to No. 4. Cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby pushes the message that, for Mullen, it's all about making plays.
That's what, in the end, dropped Mullen from starter status. Last season he played in all 12 games as a nickel back and on special teams, and finished with a career-low eight tackles. As a sophomore, he started five games and totaled 33 tackles and four pass break-ups. As a freshman, he had 18 tackles and two sacks.
Barring injury, he will remain a situational player. He understands that. Individual glory doesn't drive him. Maturity leaves him seeing the big picture, which means making a difference every snap he gets.
And he will get a lot of snaps.
“My role hasn't changed,” Mullen says. “Coaches tell me to go out and make plays. That's what I'm going to do every day. Play aggressive. Have fun.”
IU's switch from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense hasn't meant a big change for Mullen, but it could for the team.
“As a scheme it fits us perfect with the speed we have,” he says. “We're not the biggest defense, so we'll use our peed to get into those gaps and cancel out those gaps. It seems to be effective.”
For Mullen, it needs to be very effective given this is his last college shot at team success.
“This is it for me. This is the best I've seen the defense play. The talent, depth and competition is at an all-time high.
“Everybody is eager to make that play. The last couple of years we were waiting for somebody else to make that play. Now we all want to be that person to do it. That will make us a better defense.”
So does facing IU's powerhouse offense every day in practice.
“Our goal is to shut them down every day. It's just like we're playing Indiana State or Bowling Green or Missouri. There's high competition out there, but also love. We get after them; they get after us; and we try to make each other better and become the best team we can be.”
In Mullen's we-over-me approach, that's all that matters.