Aug. 5, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The elephant in the Huntington Club room at Spartan Stadium may not have been named "Riley," but it certainly was Michigan State's running back situation.
Is head coach Mark Dantonio really serious about starting former linebacker Riley Bullough at tailback against Western Michigan in the opener, or is all just a ploy to stoke the competitive fires under Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford?
Yes and yes.
Had Hill and Langford demonstrated a clear-cut ability to pick up where LeVeon Bell left off with the second-best single-season rushing performance in school history, Bullough would still be getting seasoned by defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to be a linebacker of the future.
But Bullough's ability to be a 6-foot-2, 230-pound bronking buck in the backfield right now, in addition to pulling the best out Hill and Langford, who also can expect to be pushed by a talented group of freshmen running backs, should be enough proof that the experimental phase of this switch was over in spring.
On Monday, at MSU's annual Media Day, Bullough was introduced as the No. 1 tailback despite never playing the position in a game, ahead of Hill and Langford, and newcomers Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams.
There are absolutely no plans to move him back to defense at any point this season.
No one's expecting him to single-handedly make up the 42 percent of Michigan State's offensive production that was lost when Bell decided to call it a collegiate career after rushing for 1,793 yards and receiving for 167 more yards last season as a junior.
But, he is a running back until further notice.
While there is a distinct esprit de corps that only members of the linebacking corps can appreciate, there's also something to be said about being asked to score touchdowns and breaking loose for long-gainers that excite the crowd.
Bullough didn't hear a choir of angels sing in his ear when he was informed he'd get a chance to carry the ball, but it was close.
"The best way to describe it is, I was surprised," Bullough said. "And, I still am. But, I'm trying to do the best I can and I'm learning along with the freshmen coming in. I've got a lot of good coaching around me and I'm learning a lot from Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill. So, it's going good."
Bullough, who played quarterback in high school, is one of the most open-minded linebackers to come around in a long time.
"I love offense, and I always have," Bullough said at the risk of being accused of blasphemy. "Growing up, I always thought of myself as an offensive guy. But I also love defense, so I'll really play wherever. I'm happy where I am right now, playing tailback and a little bit of fullback.
"I'm just looking forward to getting on the field for the first time, no matter what I'm doing."
Co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner is also overseeing open competitions at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, but the fish-out-of-water angle at the running back spot is especially intriguing, and not just because Bullough threw for 10 touchdowns as a junior and senior at Traverse City St. Francis High and has to be respected as an option threat.
"It is fascinating," Warner said. "The most exciting thing about it is I think there's talent there. Riley Bullough's never played the position before, but he's going to continue to keep getting better and better. Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford have played it before and there's some talent there and they can help us play some football.
"Then you've got three young guys that are very talented players, and we already seen that through three practices. Once they figure it out, they're going to be very good football players for us."
Then there's red-shirt freshman running back Nick Tompkins and a two-week time frame in which Warner hopes to have his rotation settled.
"The difficult thing is you're talking about six guys, seven if you look at Nick Tompkins," Warner said. "So, it's a matter of getting those guys reps and allowing the opportunity to show what they can do.
"Riley is a big back and what we want. As we get further along in camp, we'll sort of figure out how to best utilize him. He's versatile enough that he can do a lot of things, including lining up as a slot receiver, and he's smart enough."
Because of Bullough, Hill believes he is already a better running back than he was last year when he rushed the ball 21 times for 48 yards and one touchdown.
"It wasn't our decision to make, but I wouldn't want it any other way," Hill said about the move. "Obviously, we weren't producing enough in the spring. It should motivate us to do that much better that they bring someone over from defense into the running back mix.
"The more competition there is, the better I'll be. When competition is in my way and I'm facing adversity, I thrive off it."
Hill (5-8, 198) said it isn't anyone's goal to be the next Le'Veon Bell. Rather, it's to fill the considerable hole he left behind.
"We still have to be able to run the ball, regardless of who's in there," Hill said. "But we can't just rely on one person to win games for us. When Michigan State's at its best, it's when everybody's making plays across the board, and that's receivers, running backs, tight ends and the defense.
"The hole will be filled with production. It just might not be coming from one person. It will be from multiple players."
Langford's nomadic career has taken him from running back to defensive back as a red-shirt freshman, to wide receiver during the spring of 2012 and back to running back last season. One of the fastest players on the team, Langford had just nine carries for 23 yards as a sophomore.
"I think my inconsistency has been what's held me back," he said. "My mind-set this whole camp is to start fast and finish strong. It can work. If we all work hard and compete for that spot to the point where coach doesn't know who to really play, it can help take the team to having a great season.
"I've got my opportunity to play running back, which I've always wanted, and now I've got to make the best of that opportunity."