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You’re Nuts: Who is the best returning non-OSU DB in the Big Ten?

A corner and a safety you will probably want to keep an eye on in 2021.

Michigan v Indiana Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who is the best returning non-OSU DB in the Big Ten?

Josh’s Take: Tiawan Mullen, CB — Indiana

When Gene and I covered linebackers last week, it took no effort to remove our scarlet-and-grey-tinted glasses. The best LB’s in the Big Ten play outside of Columbus. The same could be said about defensive backs.

While Sevyn Banks is in the conversation, a part of me feels like his inclusion is due to Ohio State’s reputation more so than his own. Banks flashed in 2020, but I am somewhat surprised that he is popping up in the first round of early 2022 NFL mock drafts. I absolutely believe he will continue to grow and develop under Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes, so maybe that first round chatter will be completely justified by the end of the season. However, right now, there are far more proven DBs playing elsewhere in the conference.

Tiawan Mullen is one of those aforementioned DBs. The Indiana corner does a little bit of everything, and he earned All-American recognition for his play in 2020 (FWAA & Phil Steele). If he played for Ohio State, he would likely be an even bigger name nationally. As is, he will receive plenty of recognition and attention from Big Ten coaches and media as he looks to solidify his status as one of the best DBs in college football.

Mullen broke out in 2020, but he is no one-year wonder. He was a three-star recruit in high school (four-star according to Rivals) and got selected to play in the 2019 All American Bowl. Perhaps due to his size, he was not recruited by the nation’s elites, and he ultimately ended up signing with Tom Allen at Indiana. Maybe Allen just knows how to identify defensive talent, as we’ve seen him develop Mullen, Micah McFadden, and others into a formidable unit.

Mullen made an impact with the Hoosiers right away. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, starting the final eight. He led the Big Ten with 13 pass breakups in 2019… again, as a true freshman! He also racked up 3.5 TFL, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Mullen was named a Freshman All-American by some media outlets, and unanimously recognized with All-Big Ten Honorable Mention votes. Despite standing only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, the defensive coaches at IU began to use him like a Swiss Army knife.

They expanded his role even more in 2020, and Mullen responded by developing into arguably the best DB in the conference. In eight games last season, Mullen terrorized opposing offenses in every way imaginable. He was credited with 27 solo tackles (38 total), but more impressively, he accumulated 3.5 sacks, 4.5 total TFL, three interceptions, four pass breakups, and one forced fumble. If he had kept up the same pace over 12 or 13 games, his totals would jump off the page even more. What does jump off the page, is the fearlessness and aggression Mullen plays with.

I remember him being involved in a lot of stops when the Buckeyes played the Hoosiers last season, so I jumped on the old YouTube while writing this and watched some of his highlights from 2020. Mullen runs around and takes on contact like he’s 6-foot-1, 200+ pounds. When you see him matched up against certain receivers, it is pretty obvious that he is not… 5-foot-10 might even be generous. He is so versatile, and it makes me wish Ohio State got more creative with its secondary. Mullen is a good blitzer and willing tackler, yet still possesses good cover skills. As they say: get a player who can do both.

Tiawan Mullen might not be the best NFL prospect in the Big Ten due to his size, but I do think he is the best defensive back. There’s an argument to be made that he is among the best defensive players, period. Mullen isn’t just fun to watch — he has the skill and production to go with it. What makes him special is his versatility. He can cover the best wide receiver on the other team, and then get after the quarterback on the next play. You also have to love his attitude, which makes him a willing tackler and gives him a short memory if he gets beat on a pass play.

Along with Micah McFadden, Mullen will keep Indiana in games. He will impact quite a few, and perhaps be the difference maker in their biggest ones. This guy is good, and I believe he deserves to be called the best DB in the Big Ten.

Gene’s Take: Jaquan Brisker, S — Penn State

When most people think of high-impact defensive backs, they think of the corners. The cornerbacks cover the opposing wide receivers, and are your first line of defense against the passing game. However, as we have seen at Ohio State since losing Jordan Fuller to the NFL Draft, no secondary is complete without a stud at the safety position, and that is exactly what Jaquan Brisker brings to Penn State.

It wasn’t your prototypical collegiate start for Brisker, as his career path began at Lackawanna Community College. A two-time letterman for the Falcons, he served as a team captain in 2018, helping lead Lackawanna to a perfect 11-0 record and a win in the El Toro Bowl, in which he was named the Defensive Player of the Game. Leading the Falcons with 64 tackles, with 17 of those being TFLs alongside nine sacks and five pass breakups, he became one of the highest-rated JUCO prospects in the 2019 class. A four-star JUCO recruit and the No. 12 player in that group overall, he committed to Penn State over places like Alabama, Cincinnati, Utah, West Virginia and others.

While not quite becoming a star right out of the gate with the Nittany Lions, he appeared in all 13 games as a junior in his first season at State College in 2019. He recorded 31 total tackles, and tied for the team-lead with a pair of interceptions as well as registering four pass breakups and one tackle for loss. Despite not making a massive impact in his first year at Penn State, he was recognized for his efforts with an All-Big Ten third team selection by Pro Football Focus.

2020 is when Brisker really put it together. Starting in all nine games for the Nits in a weird pandemic-shortened season, Brisker finished third on the team with 57 total tackles, including three tackles for loss, while tallying one interception and a team-high five pass breakups. The 57 tackles were good for third-most in the Big Ten among defensive backs, and this time around he started to receive some real national recognition. He earned a first team All-American nod from Pro Football Focus and was named an honorable mention All-American by Phil Steele. The coaches and media selected him to the third team All-Big Ten, and Pro Football Focus landed him on the first team All-B1G.

With players getting afforded an extra year of eligibility following the 2020 season, Brisker will take advantage of that and return to Penn State for a third year — his fifth total season of college football including the two at Lackawanna. He has quickly become an incredibly important part of the Nittany Lions’ secondary, and has blossomed into a leader on James Franklin’s team over the past two years. The coaches love him, the players love him, and they had nothing but good things to say about the safety at Big Ten Media Days.

“Brisk is going to be an animal,” Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “I mean, he’s worked on the things he needs to work on. He plays all positions, very versatile, so I can’t wait to see him ball. I know he’s going to bring the best out of me, bring the best out of everybody in the DB room.”

The preseason accolades have piled up quickly for Brisker as well. This offseason, he has been named to watch lists for the Thorpe Award (nation’s top defensive back), the Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year), and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (defensive player of the year). Brisker is going to be an important part of a Penn State secondary that will need to improve coming off a rough 2020 season, and his leadership as well as his skillset on the field will be tremendously valuable for defensive coordinator Brent Pry.

Safeties don't usually get to make a lot of the flashy plays you see from cornerbacks, and Brisker isn’t really a flashy player. He is an excellent run defender, is adept at recognizing plays, and is an above average tackler — three things that make up your ideal safety. He is not going to be out there making plays like Malik Hooker and likely won't become a household name on a national scale, but I'm sure Ohio State would love to have a guy like Brisker on its roster as one of the conference’s best returning defensive backs.