Now a sophomore, Kenny Mullen (pictured above) has turned into an important contributor at corner and a player his teammates say is a natural leader, even at a young age.
Indiana went as young as any FBS football team last season, fielding more than 30 true and redshirt freshmen on the belief that those players had worked the hardest for playing time and perhaps the supposition that they might mature more quickly.
At least one player, at a position where production, composure and character will be greatly needed for IU this fall, might be one of the success stories of that experiment.
“One of the people who really stands out to me is Kenny Mullen, who I think has almost done a complete 180-degree change from last year,” redshirt junior tight end Ted Bolser said at IU media day last week. “He’s gotten quicker. He’s stronger. He’s gotten way better in coverage.
“And most importantly, he’s become a huge leader for our team. He’s doing all the right things.”
From Bolser, himself a player coaches have said stepped into a greater leadership role this offseason, those comments seem telling.
But Bolser isn’t the only one willing to pass out praise for the rising sophomore. Cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby couldn’t be with Mullen through most of the offseason, so he was left to simply observe what changes he saw in Mullen from the winter to spring practice, and from the summer until now.
Between his work in the weight room, the improvement of his technique and a noticeably higher level of comfort with his position, Shelby said he believes Mullen made the most of the offseason.
“His body changed, his demeanor changed and his confidence level changed. At corner, that’s what you’ve got to have,” Shelby said of Mullen. “His teammates are respecting him as a leader too, because not only is he talking the talk, but he’s walking the walk.”
Mullen was one of the first freshmen to force his way into the rotation last season, working primarily at nickel back. He finished the season with 18 tackles and two sacks, and he officially started twice, against Northwestern and Purdue.
But at 5-foot-10, 166 pounds, even against slot receivers and running backs, Mullen struggled physically. Shelby said at times it was easy to see the disadvantage created by that difference in size and strength.
So Mullen soaked everything up. He paid attention, made mental notes of what he needed to improve upon in the offseason, mapping out exactly how to make himself a better player. While most players his age were redshirting, Mullen was using the unusual experience of playing so much so young to try to push himself ahead of the learning curve.
“I feel like playing young definitely develops you. You see opponents, the talent that’s out there and that you’re playing against,” Mullen said. “It makes you work that much harder to match that talent — to be in the film room, actually want to study the game, actually want to be in the weight room.”
The results of that offseason focus and drive are what Shelby talked about seeing early in fall camp.
One year ago at this time, Mullen was undersized, almost totally blind to the physical and mental requirements of college football but possessing promise all the same. Now, he’s a true sophomore Shelby will again need and expect to play beyond his years.
But the root cause of that expectation is no longer simple necessity. Mullen isn’t in the rotation simply because someone has to be. Shelby expects more because Mullen has earned more expectation.
“He came right out of high school and was thrown into some stuff he knew nothing about,” Shelby said, adding that Mullen’s maturity, physical and otherwise, means he’ll likely move from nickel back to full cornerback duties this fall, a noticeable step up in responsibility.