LB Riley Bullough puts jolt into family’s MSU legacy

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When your last name is Bullough and you play football at Michigan State, it can sometimes be difficult to carve out your own identity.

And when you happen to play the same position as the rest of the family, it can be that much harder.

But being unique never has been hard for Riley Bullough. There’s little doubt the flowing locks of hair and fun-loving attitude are in stark contrast to his brother, Max, who was called a “computer” by coaches and teammates during his days leading the Spartans defense, culminating with a Big Ten title and trip to the Rose Bowl in 2013.

That’s just part of it, though. While Riley Bullough enters this season trying to lead the Spartans in tackles a second straight season and help them repeat as Big Ten champions, there’s one distinct difference between the brothers.

“Riley might have a little bit more crazy to him,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said, laughing. “They both have some crazy to them. You have to, to play linebacker. You have to.”

Tressel should know, having spent as much time with Max and Riley as any coach at Michigan State. Before being promoted in 2015, Tressel coached the linebackers and still spends plenty of time with the group.

So, he’s got a pretty good idea of what each player is like, especially the Bulloughs.

“If I was to characterize them, Max is more like his intelligence is off the chain and is sort of a father figure,” Tressel said, “and Riley, just that passion is ridiculous.”

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And just like Max Bullough’s teammates responded to him, the Spartans do the same with Riley.

“Riley makes us great and makes the calls, which we all echo,” junior outside linebacker Jon Reschke said. “But he brings an energy level that you can’t coach. He brings that energy to the team, and that is what is great about him.”

It’s just part of being a Bullough, Riley says, though it hasn’t always been easy. Forget about living up to what his father, Shane, did when he led Michigan State in tackles in 1985 and 1986 or what his uncle, Chuck, did when he was the top tackler for the Spartans in 1990 and 1991, the final year recording a school-record 175 stops.

Michigan State’s Riley Bullough (30) spent a lot of time in the backfield, accounting for 7.5 tackles for a loss last season.

And throw out the fact they all come from Henry Bullough, the Michigan State legend and Riley’s grandfather who was a national championship player under Biggie Munn and a national championship coach for Duffy Daugherty.

Just working out of Max’s shadow was tough enough, especially considering the two were teammates for Riley’s first two years at Michigan State.

“I wouldn’t say it was tough but it put expectations that much higher,” Riley said. “So, I was expected to do what he did and more. I just kind of cherished it and relish it I think.”

It didn’t happen right away.

Riley Bullough redshirted in 2012 and by the fall of 2013 he started the season as tailback. By the next spring he was back on defense and starting to break out of Max’s shadow, capping the comeback victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl with a fourth-quarter interception.

By 2015, he was the starting middle linebacker.

“When Max was still here and I was on the team I kind of just let him do his thing and I didn’t try to step out that much,” Riley said. “So when he left, I kind of tried to fill in that role.”

While he’s doing it a bit differently than Max did, there’s no doubt Riley is filling the role of middle linebacker just fine. He had 106 tackles last season and expects at least that with the season-opener against Furman on Friday.

And he’s filling the role of leader, as well. He was named a captain along with safety Demetrious Cox and quarterback Tyler O’Connor. All three understand few people are picking the Spartans to win the Big Ten East, but that doesn’t change what they expect.

They play for championships.

‘Having those high expectations helps you, it helps you prepare better and harder and realize that you have to perform at the highest level,” he said. “That’s the only thing that you can do. There’s nothing less. Having that in the back of your mind helps you.”

Pushing himself and those around him is natural to Riley. After all, that was life growing up in Traverse City.

Riley Bullough, center, is one of three MSU captains this season, along with Demetrious Cox,  left, and Tyler O'Connor.

“We’ve always competed with each other, all the siblings,” Riley said. “We all kind of had our own identity growing up and kind of just grew into it. I think you can see it now.”

That includes style of play. Max was a bruiser, Riley is more athletic. It remains to be seen which type of player Byron — a sophomore and listed No.3 on the depth chart at middle linebacker — will be, but it appears none of them can match up with their sister, Holly, who is a freshman running track and cross country at Michigan State.

“She’s a freak athlete,” Riley said. “She works out like three times a day and eats insanely healthy. So, she probably is the best athlete.”

It should come as no surprise coming from a family as competitive as the Bulloughs. But as Riley is proving, they all have their own way.

His way comes with his hair flying and an intensity that might be unmatched.

“I hope I have,” Riley said when asked if he feels he’s become his own player, his own person. “I think I have.”