ALAMEDA – Trayvon Mullen spent all of last week hearing about how the pressure was on. Gareon Conley had been traded to Houston, leaving the rookie cornerback to take his place in the starting lineup. He was going to get picked on. He was going to get tormented by the Texans standout receiver corps. He was going to play a huge role in the final result.
Mullen casually shrugged all that off his shoulders. He was excited, not anxious to make his first NFL start. He was confident, not overhyped.
After all, he already knew he would play at that level. That realization came from an odd place, after he got beat in front of the home crowd. Then Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders beat Mullen for three catches and a touchdown, and Mullen came away a more confident player.
Just hear him out. His logic is sound.
"I always knew I could play at this level, but I realized it after I got into that Broncos game," Mullen said on this week's Raiders Talk podcast. "I played a little too aggressive, I believe, instead of just going in there and playing with fundamentals and technique. I got too aggressive in my first game, and it was at that moment I realized that I work hard, I prepare and I know what to do. After that, I was able to just relax and play. That game just woke me up."
In sum, Mullen realize he didn't have to play outside himself to succeed. That brought calm and continued focus on technique. He hasn't been perfect since then, but he has been honed on his technique, on staying low in his back pedal and being the sticky cover man he always was as Clemson. That came during an extended practice stretch without much play, one that gave coaches confidence he was ready for a promotion.
While he had to get an IV during the game, Mullen insists he wasn't overhyped. He brought a different strategy into this game.
"I really wanted to stay focused, stay level," Mullen said. "During the week, people were staying there was going to be a lot of pressure. For me, it was just relying on the game plan, fundamentals and technique. It was still football, and I reminded myself of that."
Mullen fared pretty well for his first start. He was targeted four times and allowed just two catches for 10 yards. Not bad for an opening salvo, though there's one play he'd like back.
Fellow Clemson alum DeShaun Watson tried to it Kenny Stills, who came in motion from left to right, at the first down marker. Mullen saw the route develop and jumped it, with nothing but open field before him. The pass hit Mullen in the hands but didn't stay there.
The Raiders forced a punt, but Mullen knows that should've been a pick six. That was one moment with the game went a little too fast for him.
"I was ready," Mullen said. "I knew exactly what was coming, but everything just happened so fast. I won't miss any more of those."
Mullen will be more prepared, with some emotion stripped from each passing game. That's what experience does. While he tried to hone on his craft, he also knew that making the first of many NFL starts was a dream come true. He had played in huge games and Clemson. He got drafted high and was able to buy his mother a car with his first big paycheck, but the first start was the big moment he has been working for.
"Just thinking about growing up from a little 5-year old kid to where I'm at now, with all the experience I've had and the steady progress through the years, really made it special," Mullen said. "Getting older and wiser, bigger and stronger, always preparing for that moment -- that's what you work so hard for. You always have to be ready for that moment, because you never know when you're going to get your big chance. I was ready because I always work hard."