Editor's Note: This story was first published on the Sports Illustrated Indiana site.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Some kids just grow up faster than others. They see what they want, and they just go take it.
That's certainly true of Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen, the 5-foot-10 true freshman from Pompano Beach, Fla., who could have gone most anywhere to play football, but chose Indiana because he had something to prove. And he's more than happy to tell you about it — every day.
He has that cornerback swagger, and what he wants to do is identify your best receiver, and then crawl into his pocket all day. He doesn't care how tall he is, how fast he is, or how great his moves are. Mullen is going to be there, all day long.
Tiawan, meet David Bell.
You want best on best? Well, you've got it.
Saturday's Old Oaken Bucket game between Indiana and Purdue is going to be fun. Heck, it's a huge rivalry game, so they're always fun. But when I'm looking forward to the most is Purdue freshman wide receiver David Bell — the best freshman receiver in the country — squaring off with Mullen, who just might be the best freshman cornerback in the country.
Man on man, most of the day.
That, my friends, will definitely be worth watching.
Two young starts on a collision course
Tiawan Mullen was only a 3-star cornerback in the 247Sports composite rankings, though a few services had him as a 4-star. Being ranked so low had nothing to do with talent, but it had a lot to do with size. Mullen played most of his senior year at Coconut Creek High School in Florida down near Fort Lauderdale at 5-10 and about 165 pounds.
The biggest programs — including Clemson, where Trayvon played — thought he was too small.
Not Indiana head coach Tom Allen, nor cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby. They wanted him, and they wanted him bad. He was a priority target, and it was a two-way street. Indiana was a priority to Mullen, too.
"He used to FaceTime me all the time, practically every day he could,'' Allen said. "He was always talking and asking questions, and talking about what he could do to help us win and change things. Getting him was huge for us, no question.''
It was clear by early September that Mullen belonged on the field. And It was obvious he was Indiana's best cover corner just a few weeks into the season.
"He wasn't promised any playing time early, but he was promised the opportunity to come in and compete to play,'' Allen said. "He worked hard from the minute he got here. Some corners are chirpy guys. He's not that. He cares a bunch, works his tail off and does everything we ask him to do. He believes he's a great player, down to his core.''
Mullen isn't boisterous, and when he got to Bloomington in June, he bought in immediately. He didn't talk about stealing starting jobs, but he went out on the practice field every day and SHOWED why he belonged in the starting lineup He went nose-to-nose with Indiana's top receivers in fall practice every day, and won more battles than he lost.
"I'm not really a talkative guy, and I just let my game speak for myself,'' said Mullen, who now plays at about 175 pounds and doesn't back down from anyone. "That's how it was, I wanted to be part of a chance. Coach Allen, he's a special guy, and it's true, we really do love each other. I know what goals I wanted to reach, and what goes we want to reach as a team, and I am committed to him, and to my teammates.
"Making plays for me team, that's all I care about. We're confident, but we want to keep improving. Every week, it's all about that game, and that opponent.''
That moxie and swagger Mullen has comes for all the great athletes he's been around in his own family. He's learned a lot from all three of his brothers, two older, one younger, and from his cousin, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who just might be the league MVP this year.
"In our family, it was always just about competing and making everybody better,'' Tiawan said. "My family, no doubt they are my biggest fans, and we all want everybody to be the best.''
"From the beginning, he's been a playmaker, but he's also very special player, with a special mindset,'' Allen said. "He's a very confident young man, and he just keep getting better, like our team does. He's got a great knack for the ball, and those kind of things are huge. He's just being Tiawan.''
Mullen wants to go best on best. He did it against Darrell Stewart at Michigan State and Penn State's KJ Hamler. Michigan's great trio, too.
"He's never going to back down from a challenge,'' Allen said. "And he's done a tremendous job.''
David Bell: Destined for greatness as well
Bell has been dangerous all year for Purdue, which is no surprise. He was a huge get out of Warren Central High School in Indiana, the No. 2-ranked player in Indiana and a 4-star talent.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who's always had that reputation as a creative play-caller, had a special combination to work with in Rondale Moore, who was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2018, and Bell.
But Bell went down early in the Minnesota game, Bell had to step up. Moore still hasn't played this season because of a hamstring injury.
Bell really picked up his game when Moore went down. To be thrust into that No. 1 role is often too much for a true freshman. Not Bell, who relished the challenge.
His 899 receiving yards are No. 1 in the country among freshmen. He's had three double-digit reception games and five 100-yard games. His best day was 13 for 197 yards against a very good Iowa defense.
Bell is really dangerous once he has the ball in his hands. He's fourth in the country among true freshmen in yards after the catch with 289, and breaking one off to the house is always a possibility.
“Everything is smooth. He doesn’t look like he’s going to make the spectacular play, but he always makes the play,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said.
What's also impressive about Bell is that's he done this with three different quarterbacks. Most passing games will stall out once you get that far down the depth chart. That hasn't happened at Purdue.
Starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar was leading the country in passing after two games, but then missed the TCU loss with a concussion and Jack Plummer was thrown into the fray. Sindelar came back the next week, but was lost for the year with a clavicle injury against Minnesota, hurt early in the game on the same play as Moore.
Plummer started five games, but then was lost for the year with an ankle injury against Nebraska on Nov. 2. Walk-on Aidan O'Connell came in and led Purdue on a game-winning drive and has played ever since.
So now it will be O'Connell trying to find the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Bell, with Mullen sure to be nearby.
And that's going to be a blast to watch.
"I'm excited to watch that matchup,'' Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. ''The guy (Bell) is really impressive. He's a really good route-runner, and he can create separation. It'll be a good challenge for Tiawan. He's a physical player and I'm sure he'll want to get hands on him, but he's also very quick in short spaces and won't let him get separation.
"We've got force them to throw the ball into tight windows some. We've got to do some great things to mix up our coverage and throw them off a little bit, so we don't make it a one-on-one matchup all game long. Their quarterback has done some good things, but he's still young and inexperienced. We've got to test their mettle a little bit, with both pressure and coverage.''
- VIDEO: Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack talks about David Bell.
- VIDEO: 3 Things I'd Like to See From Purdue Against Indiana