Nov. 5, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
Photographs by Matthew Mitchell
Max Bullough traces his football DNA back to a rugged grandfather who didn't wear a facemask while playing for Michigan State in the early 1950s.
It was on the field again some 30 years later when his father led the renaissance in Spartan toughness. And there it was from 1988-91 with his uncle raising smash-mouth football to new heights.
With his close-cropped hair, fierce forward lean and an intimidating glare that all but transmits a red aiming dot to his intended target, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Bullough comes from the mold of the iconic middle linebackers that pop into our consciousness without even having to say their names.
There's little doubt that if Bullough could go back in time, he'd fit in perfectly alongside grandpa Henry and thrive in a defense designed to make his dad, Shane, and Uncle Chuck tackling machines.
Bullough's a throwback, all right, but one wired for the modern game - blood and guts meets computer chip.
"I don't know where you're going to find a T-formation (for him to face) anymore, but certainly, if you get against an old-school, grind-it-out-type of offense, with his size and strength, that would be to his element," said MSU linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "But it might take away from his ability to recognize the different formations, and know what play's coming, and communicate to other people that, `Hey, we've got this set in this personnel grouping and this is what's coming at you.'
"If they'd just line up and pound it every single play, when everybody knows what's coming, that takes away some of his aspects of football knowledge and intelligence. In today's world of football, it's more spread out and he's in space more, and at 250 pounds it's harder to play in space than it is for a little guy, but it does allow him to use his football knowledge more than it would in an old-school, Pro-I (formation) every down."
Not that Bullough wouldn't mind an opportunity to rely solely on instinct and guile the way his father did while leading the Spartans with 156 tackles in 1985 and 118 in '86.
It was a scheme that, theoretically, would hum at peak efficiency if the middle linebacker made every tackle against run-oriented offenses, and if a defensive lineman happened to bring down the ball-carrier while occupying blockers, so be it. All-American Michigan State middle linebacker Percy Snow set a school record with 172 tackles with that system in 1989 and Chuck Bullough broke it two years later with 175. Uncle Chuck and Snow are also tied for third with 164 takedowns in '90 and '88, respectively.
Despite playing against videogame offenses for much of his career, Max Bullough topped Spartan tacklers with 89 tackles as a sophomore in 2011 and 111 last season. Bullough's biggest claim to fame so far as a senior is conducting a defense that has been No. 1 in the nation in the major statistical categories for most of the season. He led MSU to a 14-0 victory over Purdue with a season-high 10 tackles, including one that led to the game-winning touchdown, to garner Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. With five more stops each against Illinois and Michigan, Bullough has 52 for the season.
"A lot of people ask who I compare myself with, but I just try to do what I do, and I think I'm pretty good at it," Bullough said. "The most satisfying thing in football is making the big, game-changing plays for the team. But No. 2 is having the great defense that we have. Being able to say we're No. 1 in the country, and that we've performed at that level week in and week out, is something I take pride in."
At his current rate, Bullough is on pace to finish his career ranked among Michigan State's Top-10 tacklers of all time, but it sure would be easier if all he had to do is hunt down running backs all game.
"I do watch film of my dad's and uncle's games and think about how much fun and how different it would be," Bullough said. "I would like to have that experience just to see what it would be like.
"But I can't say doing what I do now isn't fun. Getting guys lined up properly and having to play a different offense in a whole different kind of game each week is fun, too. Each way has its positives and negatives, but I would have liked to see what it was like."
Bullough doesn't have to let his imagination run too wild to get a feel for how his dad played.
Last season, not surprisingly, five of his six best tackling performances came against the Big Ten's top-five rushing teams, including a season-high 12 stops against Ohio State, which had the league's second-best running attack. Bullough also got his licks in against the new-fangled spread-option offenses featured by Nebraska and Michigan (10 tackles each) as well as the more-traditional running attacks favored by Wisconsin (nine) and Iowa (11).
"If we sat here and played a brute-run-at-you (style) every week, we'd want to change it up," Bullough said. "Playing in the Big Ten, we have the opportunity to play different offenses and they all do different things, whether it's the power game or the spread game or a team like Illinois that does both.
"That's a different challenge every week, and that's what makes it fun. Seeing my teammates get excited is what gets me going, and then, when we start making plays and getting on a roll, there's no better feeling that that."
It helps to be surrounded by heady teammates like defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, who Bullough said has been around for "25 years" (actually going on seven thanks to early enrollment in `08 and a sixth season of eligibility granted for a medical reasons), ends Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun and junior safety Kurtis Drummond, who sets the secondary.
"We've got smart guys on this defense and they know what they're doing as much as I do and that's what makes us work," Bullough said. "I'm just there to fill in the gaps."
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Denicos Allen would consider Bullough's characterization of what he does the understatement of the year. It was Bullough's hit on Purdue quarterback Danny Etling that caused the fumble Allen returned 45 yards for his first career touchdown and all the points MSU needed to win.
"He's a great leader and the core of our defense," Allen said. "He keeps us all together, keeps us all in the right mind-state, he gets us ready, and most of all, he knows every position. If somebody needs help, he'll tell him correctly and that's what makes our defense so good."
A photographic memory helps Bullough succeed in the classroom as a finance major, and while putting the Spartans in position to shut down offenses.
"I learn things big-picture-wise," he said. "When I sit down to learn a defense, it helps me to know the whole thing instead of just knowing what I do. That's just how my brain works.
"That's how I started learning from the beginning."
Some might say 40 years before he was born.
This feature was originally published in the Nov. 2 edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine.