April 17, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - A familiar feeling swept over Riley Bullough just as it had so many times before.
"You get that pit in your stomach and you're nervous," said the Michigan State outside linebacker.
However, Bullough wasn't standing in the tunnel at Spartan Stadium; he was waiting in the wings at the Breslin Center before taking the stage at Monday's 17th annual Spartan Academic Excellence Gala to perform for his fellow 294 MSU student-athletes being honored for achieving a 3.0 grade-point average or better.
With acoustic guitar in hand, Bullough performed an original song, "Over," with former teammate and walk-on place-kicker Evan Fischer.
It didn't matter that the audience numbered around 1,000, including family members, athletic-department officials and university administrators, instead of 76,000.
"It was the first time I played in front of a group of people like that, so it was fun," said Bullough. "It's the same in football as it is performing. Once you get on the stage, once you get on the field, your nerves kind of go away and you perform to your best."
A fan of country-western music - the old-school variety by the likes of Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard along with that of the new-agers such as Rodney Atkins - Bullough wrote the "country-poppy" number with Fischer about six months ago.
"He's a great singer, so both of us sang a little bit and I played," said Bullough. "I got a bunch of texts from people saying they liked it, so that was encouraging."
It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that Bullough jumped at a chance to play after Student-Athlete Support Services associate director Mandy Chandler suggested he audition.
"She knows that I play and write music, so she asked if we wanted to try out," said Bullough, who started taking guitar lessons as a 9-year-old back home in Traverse City and taught himself to play piano and drums. "We didn't even know what the Gala was at that point. We went in and did it with a few other contestants and they picked us."
Bullough, a red-shirt sophomore majoring in media and information, went through a similar process a year ago when Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio asked him to switch from middle linebacker to running back. He's at it again this spring while transitioning to strong-side linebacker.
"When I moved to offense, at first it was weird because I never really played tailback, let alone at the Big Ten level," Bullough said. "So it was tough, and I don't know if I ever got truly comfortable there. I was definitely frustrated just because the main reason is I wanted to be on the field as much as I could be.
"Whether it was offense or defense, I just wanted to play."
Although Bullough rushed for just 83 yards on 22 carries, his decision turned out to be one of the most significant in Michigan State's run to the Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl title, 13-1 record and No. 3 ranking in the final polls.
Bullough went into preseason camp as the No. 1 tailback, but former journeyman player Jeremy Langford responded to the challenge from the erstwhile linebacker, of all things, by rushing for 1,445 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"I understood the situation," Bullough said. "I probably wasn't going to play on defense because we had so many great older guys there. And with offense, once Jeremy caught on, he's a thousand-times better runner than I'll ever be so I understand why he was playing front of me."
A member of the Spartan Family of Bullough - the son of Shane, grandson of Henry, nephew of Chuck, younger brother of Max and older brother of incoming MSU freshman Byron - Riley feels like he's back in his rightful place.
"Moving back to defense, I honestly feel this is where I belong," he said. "I played defense my whole life. I'm comfortable with the guys around me and I'm comfortable with the scheme. The Bullough name is on defense, really, other than my grandpa (who was an offensive guard). In general, we love defense.
"But, I think I can understand football better in general for having played on offense. It's been another adjustment, but I'm back in it. I've been making a few plays, so when I can do that it just gives me confidence to get even better." Dantonio has been pleased with Bullough's progress.
"He plays extremely hard and makes plays, but he's a young player," Dantonio said. "Consistency's the issue because he's seen a lot of different things - formations, adjustments and those types of things. And obviously, when you put together different defenses things start to add up."
Bullough's repetitions have increased in practice because Ed Davis, who will be the starting "money linebacker" as a fourth-year junior in preseason camp, is out with an injury.
And, his experience at running back came in handy during last Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage when he perfectly diagnosed a screen pass called by quarterback Connor Cook, intercepted the ball before it could hit the ground and ran it back 63 yards for a touchdown.
"I heard Connor call out the play really loud and I was already set, so I knew what I was doing," he said. "I think he was trying to throw it away at the ground and I snuck up behind the linemen and just scooped it. When I can catch on to a formation or a call, it is kind of fun."
Excelling against scrimmage foes on defense who know the offense inside-out, as Bullough does, is a testament to just how good MSU's offense has been playing this spring.
"Riley Bullough played running back for over a year and he knows the terminology and the exact same words we always use, and he goes `screen, screen, screen,' " Cook said. "I throw it, he picks it off and he's running down the sideline saying, `I knew the play, I knew the play.'
Said Bullough, "I just used my knowledge; I didn't cheat."
He'll take advantage of any edge he can get while the defense continues to work on replacing Max Bullough at middle linebacker, Denicos Allen at outside linebacker and defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis.
"We lost some of the best defensive players Michigan State's ever had, so we have to fill that void," Riley said. "But our offense is just growing. They've got some great players coming from a Rose Bowl Champion team and we're trying to defend them the best we can."
In the meantime, Bullough will enjoy balancing his disparate passions of football and music - one savage, the other sensitive.
"That's my mom's side coming out," he said of LeeAnn Bullough. "Don't get me wrong. She's a tough lady."