Bastrop High has produced some great defensive players over the years. Add senior strong safety C.J. Mullins' name to the list.
Six years ago during a seventh grade game at Morehouse Junior High, an interested observer noted, "That kid is going to be a good one. He already has his footwork and lateral movement down."
C.J. Mullins had just received an endorsement from Jamerson "Fifty" Tolbert, perhaps the best cover corner in Bastrop High history. Now a senior strong safety for the Rams, Mullins has proven Tolbert right. A four-year starter, Mullins has helped Bastrop reach the Class 4A quarterfinals where they will play No. 1 seed Edna Karr on Friday at 7 p.m. in Algiers.
Mullins was rebuffed in his first attempt to play organized football.
"I always wanted to play with my brother. I wanted to sign up and play Pee Wee football with my brother, but they wouldn't let me play because I was too young," Mullins laughed.
Mullins didn't exactly follow in his older brother's footsteps. His brother, Christian Doaty, eventually became the Rams' starting quarterback. Though Mullins was a natural on the other side of the ball, Doaty was influential in his development.
"Christian's the person who got me into football," Mullins said. "I was in middle school when I finally got into football, and he coached me up on the things he knew. He was a quarterback so he knew what the defense was supposed to do."
Mullins and his brother were never teammates as Doaty graduated a year ahead of his arrival. But Mullins has made Doaty, who now attends Grambling State University, proud.
Upon reporting to Bastrop High as a freshman, it didn't take long for Mullins to make an impression on then-head coach Brad Bradshaw. By the end of the season, he was starting for the 2015 team which advanced to the quarterfinals.
Current Bastrop head coach Adrian Burnette, who was offensive coordinator at the time, has witnessed Mullins' growth over the past four years.
"We saw potential in Mullins and played him early," Burnette said. "Ability-wise, he was there, but he had a little immaturity about him. He wasn't real focused on the game. That happens sometimes when you play a 14-year-old kid. When you play kids that young, it's rough on them."
Mullins and defensive end T.J. Blanch, then a linebacker, were the only members of the freshmen class to crack the starting lineup that season. Though he tried to mask it, Mullins admits he was intimidated at first.
"The only time I have played with a lack of confidence was my freshman year," Mullins said. "I played varsity, but I was still young. I knew I wanted to play varsity, so I had tunnel vision as far as paying attention and getting mental reps. That's how I was able to be part of the varsity team."
Mullins' confidence issues are now a thing of the past.
"Nobody scares me," Mullins said.
Mullins has warned his younger teammates not to be intimidated when Edna Karr makes its grand entrance Friday night (check it out on YouTube).
"We can't have people thinking, 'Aw, they're scary, they're fixing to beat us,'" Mullins said. "We can't be like that."
Though Mullins respects the two-time defending state champion Cougars, he says it's important not to fear them.
"They have fast receivers, a fast quarterback and a big running back," Mullins said. "They're loaded just like us. We play each other in practice every day, so we know how they are. We have to play hard and come in with one thing on our mind.
"It's a different environment down there, especially knowing it's the third round of the playoffs," Mullins said. "We have to play hard and go in there in the right frame of mind. It's going to be loud, but we're going to be ready."
While offensive playmakers such as quarterback Quaterius Hawkins and wide receiver Christian Smith usually bask in the spotlight, the Rams' defense has quietly emerged as an elite unit. Mullins and fellow defensive backs Phillip Jackson, Robert McDaniel, Jabez Thompson, Jaden Davis and Smith belong in the conversation with the great secondaries of Bastrop's championship era.
Mullins says a combination of factors have figured into the defense's progress.
"We're a lot more experienced," Mullins said. "I like what the new coaches have done, and the way everything has just come together. The key to our defense is we're all on the same page. Our communication is our strength. If we don't have communication, we're going to lose. You can't be quiet on defense."
It all starts on the practice field.
"We run to the ball a lot," Mullins said. "We do the same drills during the week, then it carries over into the game. Like they say, 'You play the way you practice.'"
For Mullins, that's wide open.
"Sometimes the coaches tell me to go 50 percent in practice, but I always go 100 percent because that's how I do it in the game," Mullins said. "They're constantly telling me to slow down, but full speed is the only way I know how to play."
Mullins says football is all about preparation and having fun.
"You have to have fun while you're playing," Mullins said. "If you know what you are doing and having fun, you play better, and that gives you confidence. You play better when you understand your assignment. Everybody has a job to do."
Part of Mullins' job as one of the Rams' unofficial captains is monitoring team morale.
"If the offense turns the ball over, I'll run up to the quarterback and the offensive line and tell them, 'We're going to get it back, don't worry about it,'" Mullins said. "I try to be a captain, a leader on the team. Mistakes happen. When everybody puts their head down, I try to bring positive energy."
Mullins fully understands the magnitude of Friday night's game. For the Rams to fulfill their ultimate goal, they must get through Edna Karr.
"Since we were in middle school, everybody has been saying, 'This is the class that's going to bring the state championship back to Bastrop,'" Mullins said. "I tell my teammates and coaches we have to trust the process just like the sign says on the wall (in the fieldhouse). This is the last shot for our class. We have been working so hard to get to where we are now. I feel like we deserve to be on the red carpet in New Orleans."
Though he has no offers at this point, Mullins will have the opportunity to play beyond high school. Southern Miss, ULM and Northwestern State are among the schools who have shown interest.
"I'm going to wait and see what happens after the season," Mullins said.
At this point in time, Mullins is leaning toward pursuing a coaching career.
"I plan to go into engineering or kinesiology, most likely kinesiology," Mullins said. "I think I would be a good coach. I'm a people person. I have a lot of energy and kids can relate to me."
Over the past four years, Burnette has seen Mullins blossom from an immature, talented prospect into one of his most trusted players.
"C.J. has been a blessing for us this year," Burnette said. "He's really the reason we have some of the wins we have."
Mullins exhibited the characteristics of a winner early in his career. Six years ago, Tolbert identified a special player on a breezy October afternoon at Morehouse Junior High.