Before practice starts, IU defensive line coach Kevin Peoples occasionally works with the team’s defensive backs. He teaches them pass-rush techniques and relays terminology to cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby.
After three games this season, the Hoosiers' cornerbacks lead the team in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. Through a variety of unique coverages and blitzes, the IU secondary is contributing heavily to a physically stout defensive unit.
“It makes it tough for the opposing quarterback to read all that stuff,” Shelby said. “We’ve done a great job of being balanced, but keeping [the offense] off balance. And the more we can do that, I think you’ll see more success in those guys blitzing.”
Sophomore cornerback Tiawan Mullen stands at just 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 176 pounds. However, he leads the team with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He is also tied with junior cornerback Reese Taylor with 18 total tackles, which ranks third most for the Hoosiers.
In 2019, none of the IU cornerbacks recorded a sack. Mullen saw playing time as a freshman because of his ability to defend opposing wide receivers, and he led the team with 13 pass breakups — 10 more than the next closest player.
This season, the entire secondary is showing more versatility in both the run and pass game. Shelby said Mullen is able to hide behind linemen and use his quickness to dart past them when rushing the passer.
“He’s just a really good football player,” Shelby said. “When you add those things up, an athletic guy who can make moves. He’s very deceptive with his speed. That’s the reason why he’s been so successful. And then also, playing defense and corner and blitzing, it’s about heart. A scared man can’t make plays.”
Last Saturday, IU allowed Michigan to rush for just 33 yards in a 38-21 victory at home. Taylor recorded a team-high seven tackles and his second sack of the year, while Mullen finished the game with three tackles of his own.
The defense often credits defensive coordinator Kane Wommack for his ability to put players in a position to succeed. Wommack is in his second season calling plays for the IU defense, and even without seniors Marcelino Ball and Raheem Layne, the secondary hasn’t slowed down.
“When we see the right play calls and coach gives us the right play calls, it’s a trigger in our head to know that the run is coming,” Taylor said. “And we know it’s coming because of the film study that we get into and how deep we get into it.”
While it’s unusual for defensive backs to lead their teams in tackles behind the line of scrimmage, IU has also recorded seven interceptions so far in the 2020season. The team has already tied its interception total from a season ago in only three games.
Junior cornerback Jaylin Williams has recorded an interception in all three games this season. His fourth quarter takeaway against the Wolverines allowed the Hoosier offense to execute an eight-play, 29-yard drive resulting in the final touchdown of the game.
Williams is also tied for the team lead with two quarterback hits.
“He is playing at such a high level just in the fundamentals of what we ask him to do from a coverage perspective and, really, a physicality perspective,” Wommack said of Williams.
IU travels to Michigan State on Saturday. In 2019, the Hoosiers did not force a takeaway or record a sack in a 40-31 loss to the Spartans.
However, the team's secondary will look to continue creating takeaways and making tackles in the backfield in hopes of reaching a 4-0 record for only the seventh time in program history.
“You think of all three of our corners, they’re not just monster-sized guys out there," Wommack said. “But, boy, are they physical. And I think it shows up.”