BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Lawrence Barnett suffered a season-ending broken ankle the first game of his senior year of high school in 2008, teammate and lifelong friend Kenny Mullen was there to offer support.
Mullen visited Barnett in the hospital after the game and made a vow. "One way or another," he said, "we'll play together again."
That was far from guaranteed, as Mullen was two years behind Barnett in school. But after Barnett spent two seasons at Indiana and the Hoosiers came to Fort Wayne to recruit Mullen, he had his chance to make good.
"When IU offered me, I committed without a doubt," Mullen said. "Because I had made that promise."
The two got their chance to play together again last season. Barnett started nine games at cornerback, while Mullen appeared in all 12 games, with two starts, as a true freshman nickelback. It seemed like old times for the friends who got to know each other during their kindergarten ages. Mullen always found himself in Barnett's neighborhood for pickup games of football, basketball and whatever else, and the two were Pop Warner teammates. Though they went to different middle schools, they reunited at Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High School, winning state titles together in football and basketball.
Similar success has yet to follow in college. Their first major taste of Big Ten playing time came during a dismal 1-11 season for the Hoosiers, who had one of the worst defenses in the country. Particularly galling to Barnett and Mullen is the fact that IU ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass-efficiency defense. They admit that they were a little lost last year in trying both to adjust to top-level competition and learn co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory's system.
"The system we were playing in before [Mallory arrived] was a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4," Barnett said. "Last year, we played a lot of man and a lot of disguised zone coverages. We weren't really ready for it."
An extra year of experience and a full offseason of doing things Mallory's way should help things improve in 2012. Mullen was one of 32 redshirt or true freshmen that head coach Kevin Wilson threw into the fire last season, many of them on defense.
"We didn't know how to approach the games or how to play the schemes the correct way," Mullen said. "But we look at last year as a learning experience. We've come out this year playing a lot faster and more aggressively. We know our keys, and we know the soft spots in our own defense."
They're hoping the secondary won't again be one of those soft spots. The good thing about playing so many youngsters last year is now a lot of experience returns. Wilson also brought in two junior college defensive backs for immediate help. And if chemistry is key to good secondary play, you won't find a much better connection than the one Mullen and Barnett share.
"Coaches always want us to communicate with each other," Barnett said, "and when me and Kenny are out there, we already know what the other is going to do. Sometimes I won't even say anything to him and he won't even say anything to me. It makes it a lot easier."
That closeness means the two pick each other up and push one another in offseason workouts. Mullen still lives in the dorms as an underclassmen, but he might as well pay rent on Barnett's apartment for as much as he is over there playing Madden and NBA 2K12 on XBox.
Both loved IU basketball growing up -- Barnett was a star point guard whom the Hoosiers briefly recruited for hoops -- but have become part of the building block for the school's football future. They're following in a recent line of productive Indiana players from Fort Wayne, which include Damarlo Belcher, Dre Muhammad and James Hardy.
Mullen and Barnett are happy they're teammates again. But they're hoping their college experience results in something more than just a great friendship.
"First and foremost, we want to handle our business this season and make a bowl game," Barnett said. "And then hopefully another one. We just want to turn this program around and be known as a bowl team."