East Lansing — When Riley Bullough realized the opportunity to become Michigan State’s next starting middle linebacker was staring him squarely in the face, he knew things were about to change dramatically.
The Spartans junior said it struck him just before spring practice. No longer was he the guy that was moving around from linebacker spot to linebacker spot, playing in specific situations. This was his chance to be the man, something that is a bit of a rite of passage in his family.
“I said, ‘It’s time to step up, Riley,’ ” the younger brother of former standout Max Bullough said. “I said, ‘You’ve been moving around a little bit and it’s time to step up and emerge as that “Mike” you need to be and should be.’ ”
As No. 5 Michigan State prepares to open the season Friday at Western Michigan, Bullough has taken firm control of the middle of the defense — the same spot Max dominated for the Spartans and the one their father, Shane, and uncle, Chuck, manned in their days in East Lansing.
But as much of a family legacy as it is, Riley Bullough looked directly to his older brother — Max Bullough is in his second year with the NFL’s Houston Texans — for the direction he needed to take that step he was demanding of himself.
“The importance of watching film,” Riley Bullough said when asked what he gained most from his brother. “About halfway through last year I started watching a lot more film and talking to him. It has helped me a bunch. I didn’t realize how important it was until then and it’s gonna help me this season and beyond.”
It was that attention to detail that made Max Bullough so effective, and Riley is doing his best to emulate that. It has also drawn the predictable comparisons.
Fifth-year senior Ed Davis, who will miss the season with a knee injury, said Riley Bullough “has that computer mind” like Max Bullough.
Added fellow fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris, “He’s a studier like Max. He loves the game of football.”
Now the player who spent his redshirt freshman season as a running back is taking his understanding of both offense and defense and mixing it in with his own ability.
The result is a player who has the toughness and smarts of his brother but is even quicker sideline to sideline. The Spartans believe that can make Riley Bullough the next great player in the middle in head coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure, following the likes of Max Bullough and Greg Jones.
“Riley is more reckless, more destructive, more apt to run through a lineman or walls or whatever it might be,” said co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who has worked with the linebackers since coming to Michigan State in 2007. “And I feel like the 10 guys around him trust him 100 percent, just like the guys around Max did when he was here.”
That trust, Tressel said, started to come in the spring when Bullough told himself he needed to become the player the Spartans needed.
Harris, who has played with his share of middle linebackers, has seen the difference.
“He’ll walk up to a freshman and ask them what to do on this play or that play,” Harris said. “That is something Max did with me.”
Ever since Bullough clinched the Spartans’ Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor with an interception in the final minute, he has been working toward his new role in the middle.
And as much as it seems like the perfect spot for him — his brother, Byron, is third on the depth chart at “Mike” — he understands how vital it is for him to perform well.
Taiwan Jones did nicely last season after the Spartans lost Max Bullough to the NFL, but that was a one-season deal. This spot is Riley Bullough’s to grab hold of and control for the next two seasons.
And he’s relishing every bit of it.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Riley Bullough said. “I think on any defense, the “Mike” position is huge. You’ve definitely got to be a leader and I thrive on that. Having the pressure put on me, I want that. As that guy this year, I look forward to being that leader that the guys look up to.
“For me, I look at myself as our defense is going to be as good as I play and as I lead. I think any “Mike” needs to have that mentality, and I think that’s what I have going into the season.”
Michigan State at Western Michigan
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo
TV/radio: ESPNU/WJR 760
Series: MSU leads 11-2
Line: MSU by 18-1/2