Patrick Mullins

Maryland forward Patrick Mullins gets airborne for a shot during practice Thursday. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / September 22, 2011)

COLLEGE PARK — All things considered, Maryland soccer player Patrick Mullins had a successful debut season last year.

The Louisiana native finished with five goals, including a game-winner in an October showdown with No. 2 Connecticut, and an assist in 21 games, a performance that was good enough to earn him Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year.

However, winning that honor was just the start for Mullins, who has raised his game this season in helping the Terps (7-0-1) to the top of the national rankings.

Mullins, who played left midfield last season, has been switched to forward, a move he sees as more of a benefit than a challenge.

"That's the position I've played my whole life," Mullins said. "I helped out the team last year at left mid, but for me I always want to be closer to the goal, I always want to be in scoring position. To be forward, that's natural for me."

Mullins' numbers have backed up his comfort, as he has scored five goals through Maryland's first eight games, including two against then-No. 8 Boston College on Sept. 9.

"It certainly is something that we both expected and hoped for, because we saw what a great year he had last year in a reserve role to win ACC [Freshman] of the Year," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said.

Cirovski, who coached the Terps to national championships in 2005 and 2008, said that despite his solid performance last season, Mullins needed to and did improve in key areas.

"He's mentally a lot tougher. He handles tough moments in a game, or criticism or mistakes — he seems to be able to let them roll off his sleeve a lot better," said Cirovski, adding that Mullins also vastly improved his fitness, an aspect of the game that limited his playing time as a freshman.

"It took a little while to get my fitness on straight, and it took a lot of work this past summer to be honest and a huge commitment from me to do that," he said. "Going from in Louisiana, I was able to be a little more relaxed and stuff throughout some games, maybe I didn't have to work as hard as I would've here.

"I'm just now starting to get into the best shape of my life, so I still think I can get better and better at that."

Mullins enrolled at Maryland a semester early in the spring of 2010 after a successful career at Jesuit High in New Orleans and with the Chicago Fire Juniors of Louisiana. His play helped him earn Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year in 2008, and he came to campus as TopDrawerSoccer.com's 31st-ranked recruit in the nation.

Hubie Collins, a coach with Jesuit and the Fire, said Mullins was destined for success at the college level.

"With Patrick Mullins, he would always be scoring these outstanding, exceptional goals, so you kind of knew from the beginning when you saw him that you'd say, 'Hey, this guy's got something different, something special,' " he said.

Collins described Mullins' greatest asset, his power, which allowed him to pull off some impressive feats in high school.

"One time, he took a penalty that hit the crossbar and hit the goalkeeper in the back of the head and went straight into the back of the net," Collins said. "The goalkeeper couldn't even get his hands up."

Mullins' power and improved conditioning have enabled him to step into a key role among the team's more established playmakers.

"He took a lot of steps forward in terms of fitness and maturity," Terps senior forward Casey Townsend said. "He's been playing really well for us. He's been doing a lot of work, and he's scored some goals."

Like Mullins, Townsend played a key role as a freshman, scoring 11 goals and adding four assists in 24 starts for the 2008 national championship squad. Though they served different roles in their respective first seasons, Townsend believes that their similar experiences have helped them both.

"We're different players, but I would like to think that he's learned a lot from me and I've learned a lot from him as well," Townsend said. "I like to go out and put the work in. I think he's maybe learned from that and he put a lot of work in in the offseason and you can see it paying off for him now."

Mullins and Townsend have jelled on the front line, forming a formidable duo that has scored 13 of the team's 23 goals this season. Townsend and other key contributors, including junior John Stertzer (five goals, three assists) and sophomore Sunny Jane (five assists), have helped Mullins become more effective on offense.

"I think our attack is so dynamic. If they just focused on me, I think they'd be in serious trouble," Mullins said.

Mullins aspires to play soccer after his time at Maryland, though he said he has not given much thought to that goal since he has been at College Park.

"It's always been my dream to be a professional player, no doubt about that," Mullins said. "But since I've been here, I've never thought about … leaving early or anything like that. I love the college experience. I love my team here, and that's what I focus on at all times here."

For the moment, Mullins and his teammates' focus is on keeping up their early-season success, ultimately with an eye on a national title.

"I think our best soccer is still to come, to be honest," he said. "In my mind, just because we're No. 1 now doesn't mean we're going to be No. 1 at the end of the year, and that's when it really matters."

xcxmbirchenough@baltsun.com