Michigan State Football Is Experiencing “The World Of Riley!”
He could have played football anywhere he wanted. This athletic and strong stud football player from Northern Michigan’s picturesque Traverse City was a star in high school. Big Ten schools coveted both his drive and his talent. For him, it was about more than football.
The Michigan State red shirt freshman committed early to the Spartans, and he told me at the time, “I didn’t need to drag it out. I was really thankful to so many schools that wanted me to play for them, but I am a Spartan. It is in my blood and it is who I am. I didn’t want to disrespect them by dragging it out and giving them a false sense that I was considering it, just for the attention.” Those were wise words for a 16 year old young man and it showed his maturity.
When you are a Bullough, the public perception of who you are is not reality. The country sees them as a football factory that lives for the game that America worships. That is not the reality.
In the interest of full disclosure I admit that I see the family differently. I am a friend of the family and I know them as a family and NOT a football factory. There is no doubt that this family and their legacy is far from written, but they are the greatest family in Spartan sports history. What is missed is that football is not the goal; it is the byproduct of who they are.
While most think the Bullough name attached to any newborn male equals more Spartan glory, it is far from that. The Bullough’s tough gladiator image is accurate on the field, but the farthest thing from reality off of it. Football is what they do and they certainly love it, but it doesn’t define them. Words like character, integrity and honor do.
As brutal and tough as they are on the gridiron they are quick to tell one another that they love each other, they are the biggest fans of one another, and they care about so many things other than football.
I remember being with Riley at the home of his ICONIC grandfather Hank, when he was young. Max was getting so much attention as an up and coming football player and he had joined his family to celebrate a holiday. Riley was beaming from ear to ear with pride for his brother.
When your grandfather is an ICONIC figure in college and NFL football, your father and uncle are stars, and your brother is an up and coming super star you would think one could feel lost. Not Riley. He told me on his own, “Max is better at one thing even more than football.” I knew of Max’s ability as a student so I assumed Riley was going in that direction. When I asked what, his smile got even bigger and he said, “He is a great brother.”
It was that moment that most fans wouldn’t get to see that defines Riley. He loves the game as much as any Bullough before, but that love of family runs far deeper.
Lost with so many great players in his family is that fact that HE is a great player. Bret Bielema at Wisconsin was one of many that coveted Riley and tried to capitalize on it in recruiting.
Bielema knew that with so much pressure and a brother with the potential to be ICONIC that Bullough may have wanted a change; a place where he could write his own legacy and be his own man. Bielema told me about Riley, “He is a great player. Sure he comes from a great family and a great family of football players, but I think people lose in translation that he is a special athlete and player. In the end he didn’t run from his family and their legacy. He embraced it and I think wanted to add to it.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
Riley is no cookie cutter. He is never far from his ever present smile. Although he shares Max’s chiseled-out-of-granite look, you don’t notice it as much because of his aw shucks country boy charm and smile. Whereas Max is more willing to stand in the background and avoid the media and attention, Riley embraces it. Doesn’t seek it, but embraces it. If you know Max, as I do, he is very personable. Riley would make a stranger seem like they had been long times friends.
Max and Riley share a work ethic that demands others to follow their example. There is no doubt at all that this Spartan Football team is led by Max. There is also no doubt that Riley earned the respect of his teammates by matching Max’s legendary work ethic and taking the tough coaching Max dishes out.
For Riley nothing was given and everything was earned. That is a way of life for the Bullough’s and not just in football. When Riley committed to MSU, Max told me, “I would have supported him wherever he went. I hope people don’t look at him like he is me. He is a great player on his own. Coach D won’t care that his name is Bullough and neither will Coach Narduzzi. He will earn it.” He has.
On October 9, 2012, Riley had a moment. Riley was big and athletic, but something most people overlooked was that he was equally a star on offense.
Wanting a big back to simulate the Iowa Hawkeyes that week in practice it was head Coach Dantonio, who knew the talents of his youngster on the offensive side, began to ponder an idea. Dantonio moved him to running back for that week. It didn’t take long to impress. On one of his first runs on the scout team he did the unheard of. He took on Max.
It was Max who according to one MSU offensive star “Tore the ass of the offense” last year prior to the Minnesota game for their inefficiency. It was Max whose tough warrior play leads by intimidation and when Riley lowered his head and ran at him a message was sent. It wasn’t a major car wreck. Those hits don’t happen in season, it was more of a foreshadowing of things to come.
As players and coaches hooted and hollered a message was sent. Riley may be more talkative, he may smile more often, but he could match toe-to-toe with Max on toughness and he not only wasn’t afraid, he craved it.”
Spartan star CB, who turned down the NFL to return from 2013, Darqueze Dennard describes Riley the best. Dennard is one to wax loquacious, but when it comes to Riley he is a man of few words. He says, “He’s the definition of pounding the pile. That’s all I’m gonna say. He run downhill.”
That week in scout team practice, Riley made a big impression. Defensive coaches began to covet the day he was no longer a redshirt player and they could use him like a new toy. Narduzzi’s mind went wild with thoughts for 2013. The problem for the man nicknamed the Nardawg was that his head coach had the same visions, only his were on offense.
As Dantonio saw his young star earn the respect of his teammates with every carry that week he knew what he had in the wings. The question marks were all over the MSU offense in 2012. It was to put it nicely…pathetic.
Max’s butt kicking of the offense was appreciated by coaches, who found out after the players-only-meeting, and embraced by a frustrated defense that felt they had to hold a team scoreless and also put up some points for the Spartans to win.
Heading into the spring of 2013 Dantonio had to find answers. His Spartans had wasted a top five defense the year before and he couldn’t allow a repeat performance in 2013. He knew that Riley was there and he knew that he would probably make the move. True to Dantonio style he knew that he had to make the move “FAIR.” To have put Bullough there to start spring could have made room for questions to arise that he was playing favorites to the last name. They wouldn’t have been accurate, but why put his young star, a new OC, and his team in that position.
As fast as he wanted to erase memories of 2012 Dantonio had to let this develop. Spring 2013 started bad for the MSU offense. To say that they were ineffective would be polite. In fairness to new MSU OC Dave Warner, there were a ton of changes. The Spartan Nation has no clue how big those changes will be until 2013 kicks off.
The Spartans came into the spring with Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford. Hill had been recruited as a punt returner and kick returner. He had not been able to keep either job and Langford had failed to progress in the system. Langford has the speed and size, but the proverbial “light” had not come on to play the starting RB at MSU. Neither young man was even able to give LeVeon much of a break in 2012.
In fact, Hill and Langford’s inability to give Bell some relief reps was part of the reason that Bell and his camp knew he had to leave early for the NFL. Bell had carried the ball way too much in 2012 and with Hill and Langford as backups on the depth chart he and his camp had to consider 2013 would be more of the same.
Nick Tompkins is a red shirt freshman in 2013. He has great balance and speed, but has yet to adapt to the college game. All three good young men, all three with serious question marks as far as ability to carry the load for the Spartans offense, even with changes will still covet rushing the ball.
As spring unfolded it was clear to the entire team that without a big back that could gain an inch on the nation’s best D, things were going to be bad. Real bad. After ending more than one period designed for head-to-head battles early with the offense’s ineffectiveness the point had been made. The offense needed help and they needed it desperately.
Dantonio had not forgotten his young star and he made the call.
Dantonio described keeping quiet on his plans for Riley early in camp. He said, “I didn’t really want to talk to anybody about it for the first three weeks because I wanted him to play mike linebacker. And I wanted to give all the reps to our other tailbacks. But I felt like, after watching him get ready for the Iowa game…he was the scout team tailback versus Iowa last year to simulate their tailback…I thought he had something to him. He’s used to carrying the football, he was tough. He had a little bit of something and maybe there would be possibilities there. So we stuck him in there the last two weeks which is what I planned to do.”
Riley talked to me about Coach D holding back telling anyone of his impending move to RB. “Coach D is like that…he kinda keeps things to himself. I’m just happy he gave me the opportunity in the spring to come play tailback really.”
As soon as Riley made the move to RB the energy level went crazy. The stagnant offense had hope. Just like his earlier described carry against Max a few months before as they prepped for Iowa, again on one of his first carries, the Bullough’s had a hit that one coach described as “a colossal collision of power.”
One coach described Riley’s immediate impact on the offense as, “A case full of Viagra to the nursing home.”
As one of the most popular players on the team, with that first hit Riley had given the offense a shot of hope and the defense knew that Max was sending the message it was open season on his little brother. It inspired the team. One parent who was at one of Riley’s earliest times at running back told me, “It’s a mentality. It’s a shift in thinking. I have been around the game a long time and I have never seen one player impact like that. Even when he came off the field they played inspired.”
QB Andrew Maxwell described for me for this article what Riley’s presence on offense means. He said, “Well, he’s a Bullough. I think Bullough rhymes with energy. I think position change causes an excitement in guys. It’s kind of like when coaches change positions and it brings a freshness to the room. When a player gets to change positions I think it’s something new, I think it’s something exciting. And I think that’s what he’s feeling right now. He probably hasn’t carried the ball since high school. He’s a guy who’s confident in his ability to get us 5, 6, 7 yards when he runs the football. So we’ve really enjoyed having him on our side of the ball and are looking forward to seeing where it goes.”
A star in his own right and fellow class of 2013 star Jamal Lyles loved what Riley did for the offense. Lyles is a similar young man in character and talent and he told me of Riley at running back, “He’s been real successful. He’s 230 lbs. so he’s gonna fall forward sometimes. So it’s real exciting to watch him run the ball. I like him running the ball because I know he’s gonna try to run people over, instead of making people miss most of the time. It’s been real fun watching him be physical.”
Future NFL DE Marcus Rush is a close friend of the Bullough’s. Rush is more like Max and is not one who enjoys the media exposure. He did brighten up when I asked him what Riley brought to the offense. “I think yeah, overall he’s just extremely athletic. You can see that on the field. He’s got a motor and he’s got a heart. He has everything any football player needs to have. He’s doing a great job where he’s at.”
I have said every year that the most important thing in Spartan football each year that isn’t an actual game is the spring draft. Coach’s use spin as good as any DC politician, but players don’t lie. When they pick their teams it tells you who is playing best. When Max picked Riley as the number one back in the draft you knew how well Riley was really playing. The other team groaned.
Max told me about Riley’s emergence on offense, “I think watching him come here…when he first came and was playing linebacker, that was even fun. And now that he’s playing on offense, making plays, I think it’s just that much more fun. He’s a guy that’s been able to just get in there with the 1’s and the 2’s and he’s not sitting behind me. He’s always made a name for himself, whatever sport it was or however old we were. So I’m really proud of him. I love watching him and I encourage him every time I see him.”
That first collision of the spring with Max had sent a shot of adrenaline through the football team like nothing many had seen in years. The defense loved the fire that had been lacking in the offense and the offense had picked up an element of toughness. The offense had played intimidated of the defense for the first part of spring. Once the move of Riley came that stopped.
Riley said, “Our entire defense is intimidating, especially Max in the middle. But our offense is coming along so there’s good things coming definitely.”
Max told me of that collision, “Yeah, its fun. It’s just like when we were kids. It’s not as competitive as it was back then. But it’s fun, going out there and competing with him on an everyday basis. It was kind of ironic. Like I said, the first 3 or 4 runs he had I think I was the one making the tackle.”
Riley had a little bit different memory. He recalled that first big collision like this. “The first day I played tailback I was running a power through the middle. I spun and he hit me right in the kidney and I was like, Oh I guess it is tougher than I thought to be a running back.”
Riley brings that mentality that Narduzzi has infused in the defense. They want to intimidate you, beat you up, and be agile, hostile, and mobile. Riley said of what he brings to the offense, “I think it’s just a mindset. Get downhill, get… They tell me to get 4 yards and we’ll be good. It’s intimidating for the defense to know the offense is gonna come pound you every play. So that’s what I’m trying to bring to the table.”
The next great star on this defense is DE Shilique Calhoun. He has a great relationship and respect for Max and Riley, but this quote machine couldn’t stop talking about Riley’s move to running back. He said, “He’s a Bullough. There’s not much you have to say after that. Knowing that you have a Bullough backing you, you feel like you’re set. Like I said, Coach wants us to play like gods and the Bullough’s are like gods pretty much on the field. So having him out there, knowing there’s a lot of security, knowing that he’s gonna come down here strong. Especially because of their family origin that’s been here, hard, tough players. Definitely having him back there, they know he’s gonna be running strong without a doubt.”
I asked Calhoun when spring ended who he thought was the best running back and he never hesitated. He said, “Please, Riley!”
I don’t see Riley carrying the ball 45 times a game this year. I don’t care who the back is, Dantonio doesn’t want that. If he does, it means that a freshman has failed to step forward and frankly, I don’t think that will happen with the three coming in.
What Riley Bullough does for this offense is give them an edge. As soon as he joined the offense good things began to happen in the passing game and other places. He brought hope. For a rebuilding offense, practicing every day with the nation’s best defense was tough.
Riley Bullough has never been about himself. He has the body of someone you would expect on the beach impressing everyone with what looks to be sculptured granite, but he is more content being humble and enjoying some country music.
In a short amount of time he has gone from the gritty youngster to the symbol of toughness. He has rallied and inspired the offense, fired up the defense, and has coaches on both sides of the ball murmuring things like, “Did you see that?”
As much as I have tried to steer away from that “he’s a Bullough” mentality, it is exactly what he is. He is tough, he leads from the front, he is a great football player, and a better young man. He inspires the Spartan Nation on the gridiron, but makes his family proud more by who he is off of it.
The aw-schucks laid back smile and mentality isn’t an act. If anything, the Bullough’s are genuine. I leave you with this story. Earlier this spring I told him a story of a young boy who wanted a Bullough jersey. When his parents gave him one with the #40 (Max’s number), the young boy told them he wanted #30 for Riley.
Riley looked at me and said, “That is amazing, but tell him to wear that one. He is the best player on the team and my favorite player.” That’s Riley. That is the Bullough’s.
So as the summer passes on you can know that Riley is near the water, close to a weight room, and watching film. You can also be assured that while the Spartan Nation and the college football nation are talking about him, he isn’t. He is keeping his mouth shut and working. If anything he is surprised to find himself in “The World of Riley.”
This article is reprinted from the May 2013 Edition of Spartan Nation Magazine. If you are not a subscriber to the 100% FREE Magazine you should. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY.