The effervescent defensive tackle simply smiles and nods his head when he’s told about Butch Davis informing the media last week that his unit has been setting the tone in each and every practice.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans,” Mullins said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot and a lot of us have starts under our belts. Right now, it’s just working on the little things – being fundamentally great on technique and running to the ball hard. So every day we come out and we want to set the tempo every day… We want to do it all day long – that’s just the mindset we’ve got.”
Part of the reasoning behind that approach is a clear and honest look at the ’08 season. Mullins posted 12 tackles, two tackles for losses, one sack and two fumble recoveries in his backup role, but he insists that neither he nor any of his teammates were happy with the final product.
“When we watched the film from last year – [defensive line coach John] Blake makes sure that we’re very critical of ourselves and that we grade ourself,” Mullins said. “He wanted us to be real with ourselves, so when we looked at that film, we always asked, ‘How did we win that ball game?’ Because we could do a whole lot better in a lot of those games. We all felt like we were heavy, we weren’t in great shape and that held us back a lot. So we all took last year as an underachievement.”
Mullins’ comments about playing heavy mark the third time a defensive lineman has emphasized that fact this preseason, leading one to wonder how that can possibly happen in a structured environment such as a collegiate football program. The Caruthersville, Mo. native answered that inquiry honestly, simply admitting that he and his teammates were “big Chinese fans.”
“It’s just swallowing those groceries, man,” Mullins said. “We had to change our diets. We had to change our whole process. We’re big guys, so we like to eat. But in order for us to be good, we’ve got to also eat right. That played a big part this summer. We all stayed together and we ate right. We worked hard with [strength and conditioning coach Jeff] Connors and it’s showing out there on the field.”
The results have obvious – Mullins has dropped 20 pounds since last fall to squeeze in under the 300-pound mark at 295. His speed and quickness have both increased, giving him explosiveness as he works at both the nose and three-technique tackle positions.
Even more good news has arrived on the academic front for Mullins, who dealt with a NCAA roller coaster ride in the months leading up to his first season at North Carolina in ’06. After completing a handful of classes at Wendell (N.C) East Wake to finalize his transcript after moving from his home state of Missouri during high school, Mullins was informed that he had qualified in July of that summer. But the NCAA called back on Aug. 24th – less than 10 days before the season opener against Rutgers – that he had not actually met the necessary requirements.
Fortunately, the 6-foot-3 tackle received a waiver from the NCAA Initial Eligibility Waiver Committee that allowed him to practice with the team during the 2006, although he was not eligible to play. Because of those theatrics, Mullins is now considered a senior eligibility-wise, but he can earn an additional year back by meeting academic performance benchmarks. And so far, everything is going according to plan.
“I finished strong – I finished with a 3.0,” Mullins said. “Academics are going to be the least of my worries, especially going into this year. So I can just put that behind me and just focus on football and work hard.”
With Mullins' success in the academics department, there is just one other goal the fourth-year player has in mind for this fall.
“Well, winning the ACC is the main thing, but as defensive linemen, we just want to go out there and dominate the game,” Mullins said. “We want to be tenacious. When you turn that film on, you want to see 11 guys going to the ball, sprinting to the ball, every time.”