The true freshman out of Auburn High School earned Class 6A All-State honors for the Tigers last year, but wasn't considered a real high-profile recruit. He made an early commitment to Southern Miss. However, when Coach Gene Chizik and his staff took over at Auburn, Sullen got a closer look from the AU coaches and was offered a scholarship.
Sullen played a few snaps with the offensive line in the Tigers' season-opening win over Louisiana Tech. He has also seen action with special teams, primarily as a blocker lined up in front of punter Clinton Durst.
It was a different situation for Sullen against the Cardinals of Ball State.
He had worked hard in practice and dropped 35 pounds from 357 when he arrived on campus this summer to 322 when he lined up against the Cardinals between junior center Ryan Pugh and senior tackle Andrew McCain. Mike Berry flipped from right to left guard with Sullen going on the right side.
"I found out Friday when Coach (Gene) Chizik told me I was going to be starting," Sullen notes. "He said, ‘John, we're going to need you to step up tomorrow. It's your time; you are no longer a freshman. It's time for you to grow up.'"
Sullen admits he was very excited when Chizik told him about starting, but didn't want to show too much emotion in front of his head coach.
"The emotion came out when I got back to my room," he says. "I didn't have to change my preparation. Since I was second team, Coach (offensive line coach Jeff Grimes) always says be prepared for anything. I had a little bit of time knowing I was going to start, but not too much."
John Sullen (right) signs an autography at fan day. At left is Ralph Spry Jr., who was a wide receiver and Sullens's teammate at Auburn High, who is redshirting this year after transferring to Auburn from the University of Minnesota.
Commenting on Sullen's first college start, Chizik says, "For the first time I was really proud of John. He stepped into the role and did what we asked him to do. He is a young guy and that is a really hard position to play, OL, when you are a freshman.
"I think Ryan Pugh on one side of him really helps because Ryan gets the whole picture. He has played a lot of football. He is a coach's son and he just understands football so that helps John having Ryan to his left.
"Overall, I am very proud of John," Chizik adds. "You really have to give him a lot of credit because he came in there, stuck in there, played hard and helped us win the game."
As for Isom's status, Chizik says when the junior guard is spotted back in uniform that means he has done what is required to get back in good graces with the head coach. The time frame for that happening is undetermined at this point.
Sullen's excitement built as kickoff was delayed by 30 minutes because of lightning in the area.
"It was great when the crowd reacted to my name on the big screen," he says.
As for the game itself, Sullen states, "I feel like I played pretty well. I played solid. I was excited about having a chance to step up. The first quarter went smoother than I expected. I had Pugh and McCain with me the every step of the way. It's just football. I heard Peyton Manning say, ‘You only get nervous when you don't know what you are doing.' I wouldn't be out here if I didn't know what I was doing."
McCain, a senior who is a starter for the first time in his career, offered a positive review of Sullen's performance.
"He took the job and put it on his shoulders," the tackle says. "He made a few mistakes like everyone else, but he did a great job," McCain points out. "He was shaky, but settled down. It was fun to see him succeed. I started my first game not long ago. I can relate."
Sullen was surprised about his physical adjustment to playing a large number of snaps. "Once everything got started, I didn't really get tired," he comments. "I was in a zone I guess you could say."
Sullen has come a long way from a potential redshirt freshman year to being a starter on a veteran offensive line in only his fourth game.
"I heard about the redshirt, which is something a lot of freshman offensive linemen do," he says. "I knew I was going to come in and work. With the lack of depth on the offensive line, I didn't really know what to expect."
Sullen is strong academically, something that is stressed by his parents. His mother, Brelinda, is the principal at nearby Notasulga High School.
Sullen probably got much of his athletic ability from his mother, who is the leading scorer and rebounder in Tuskegee University women's basketball history.
His mother was concerned in the spring when John was spending a lot of time at fast food places around Auburn as his weight climbed to almost 360 pounds. She couldn't wait until he got on campus where his conditioning and eating habits could be reined in.
Sullen is shown in a preseason practice.
Sullen isn't concerned about if he'll be a starter when the 4-0 Tigers travel to Tennessee on Saturday for their first road game of the season. He says he'll be ready if needed, just like he was for Ball State.