Duffy Daugherty Football Building
As the Michigan State Spartans embark on their quest for a second straight Big Ten title and birth in the college football playoff, leadership is a big question. Well maybe it is not fair to just say leadership as a blanket statement, because they know that they heart of the team plays middle linebacker.
After finally settling in last year as the anchor of the Spartan defense, Riley Bullough flashed a family legacy of gridiron leadership that goes back to his grandpa in the legendary Hank Bullough and carries up and down his family tree and not just Michigan State. When last season came to an end there was no doubt that Riley Bullough had assumed command of this team.
He didn’t seize it like his brother Max did, but his teammates ceded it to him. They wanted to follow him and they did. I caught up with Bullough recently at practice and we talked about his evolving roll as a leader.
I asked him about going from leader of the linebacker’s to leader of the team? True to his nature, Riley wasn’t willing to just assume the role. “I think that they (Offense) have leaders as well. Tyler (O’Connor) is a great leader and Josiah (Price) is a great leader as well and we have other guys too. I am just embracing the role of a leader in general. I am just looking to do the best that I can.”
So how would the humble Bullough describe his maturation as a leader? He flashed his trademark smile that he gets from his mother and said, “It has been a process. Sometimes it is hard to believe that I am going into my fifth year. It’s crazy. I have embraced it and I enjoy it. Last year was my first true experience of being a leader on the team. I think now a lot of the guys look at me as the guy. It is humbling to me and it’s exciting at the same time.”
So does Riley enjoy being a leader? “I enjoyed it last year. Right now I am just trying to build on it and be a leader all of the time vocally and with my actions. It can’t be an on or off thing, it’s got to be all of the time. That is what I have been working on and I think it has been going well so far.”
If you know the Bullough’s well, which I do, they are a fascinating family that I am proud to call many of them friends. Max is a born leader. I think he was telling the doctor how to cut the umbilical cord when he was born and the doctor appreciated it. He is literally the mini me to his father Shane. Riley is a musician, he is laid back. Certainly a great and intense player on the field and he has the football skills that seem to be downloaded by God into all Bullough’s at birth. Off the field Riley is very similar in personality to his lovely mother LeeAnn. Byron who is the youngest of the “Bullough” boys born to Shane and LeeAnn is amazingly his dad and mom, yet at the same time incredibly his own man. It is a phenomenal family dynamic of differences, but yet they are one of the kindest and closest families you will ever meet.
So how has that Max to Riley to Byron dynamic impacted Riley? “It is kind of hard to pin point how our relationships are. Just because it has been like that since we were born. We are all close. Max was always giving me pointers, and I try to do the same for Byron. I guess I got that from Max. It wasn’t many times that Max was asking me questions about middle linebacker, because he was there the whole time. I kind of moved around so I guess that dynamic is a little different. Me and Byron are kind of in this together I guess you would say.”
How does Riley view the growth of Byron as he enters year three on the roster? His brother sure is proud, “He is doing great so far. Byron is a really smart football player. I catch myself asking him questions all of the time about what he thinks. What are we supposed to do here? Things like that. He’s done good so far.”
As the leader of the team now, watching a head coach and coordinators that like to tinker and experiment can be fun. So what does Bullough think of the spring? “We are excited. Especially in spring a lot of guys are moving around, you don’t really get set in stone where you are going to play. They kind of experiment and that is fun too. It’s also fun to see younger guys step up and be ready to play and do well at the same time. It’s been fun.”
So nationally are saying that the Spartans after all of their success the last few years will lose some of their fight after the Cotton Bowl loss to Alabama. Bullough doesn’t agree with those opinions. “I think it is easy, just because that is the dynamic of our team and how everyone feels. They are never satisfied and they don’t need me to get up there and say that. From that aspect I think that we are all set.”
One thing is certain. With Mark Dantonio at the helm and a Bullough as the unquestioned leader of the team, 2016 has the beginnings of something very special.