Monday, August 6, 2012
Bullough keeps Spartans a step ahead
By Adam Rittenberg
Mac or PC? Most of us fall into one of these camps.
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi doesn't put himself in either, at least on fall Saturdays. He opts for The Bullough, which, at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, doesn't fit into most cubicles. Fortunately for Narduzzi, there's more than enough room on the football field.
"Max, he's like my computer," Narduzzi said of junior middle linebacker Max Bullough. "He calculates different things. He's the most unbelievable middle linebacker that I've coached, just because of the mental aspect of the game."
It's high praise from someone who coached former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones, who played both outside linebacker and middle linebacker at Michigan State.
Michigan State's linebackers follow Max Bullough, who knows how to get the defense lined up.
Bullough has the ideal frame to play middle linebacker, and as a third-generation Michigan State Spartan who also has a grandfather and an uncle who played at Notre Dame, he also has ideal bloodlines. But what sets him apart, at least in Narduzzi's eyes, is the way his mind works on the football field.
See, most football players worry about doing their jobs. It's a fine approach, and one that, if executed by all 11 men, can lead to tremendous success.
But it's not that simple for Bullough.
"I don't know, it's just how my mind works, but I have to know all the pieces to the puzzle in order to understand what's happening, why we're doing it, what I'm supposed to do," Bullough said. "I like the whole picture. So in order to learn my spot, I learned everyone else's along the way. It's easier to remember."
Easier? Hmmm. Perhaps for a finance major who last year earned Michigan State's scholar-athlete award for having the highest GPA on the team for players who have reached at least junior academic status.
Can Bullough line up the entire defense before the snap?
"Pretty close," he said. "I get a little iffy with the safeties. I'm not sure of their alignment. But other than that, I know just about every position in the front seven."
Bullough takes care of his own business as well. He led the team with 89 tackles last season, his first as the starting middle linebacker, and had 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks en route to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. The junior enters 2012 on preseason watch lists for four major awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Outland, Lombardi).
Michigan State returns eight starters from the league's top defense in 2011, and while players like end William Gholston and cornerback Johnny Adams will generate most NFL hype, Bullough is the unit's leader.
"What he does best is he goes out and he gets the defense lined up," senior outside linebacker Chris Norman said. "You don't find a lot of middle linebackers who can do that. For that reason, people are willing to follow him. That's one of the marks of a leader. Do you have anybody following you? He does. So I think he's going to be an even better leader than he was last year."
Narduzzi gives Spartans defenders the freedom to direct coverage based on what they see from opposing offenses before the snap. He considers it a better approach that "me just calling it from the sideline and guessing."
Bullough's presence makes it easier on his coach.
"My dad coached in the Ivy League," Narduzzi said, referring to his late father, Bill, a former Columbia assistant. "He said he had a bunch of smart guys, but they were not very intelligent when they got on the football field. Not only is Max good in the classroom, but he's got knowledge to be a great coach like his grandpa."
Hank Bullough, a lineman on Michigan State's Rose Bowl championship team in 1952, had an extensive career, first at his alma mater and then in the NFL. Max Bullough could follow a similar path, but he has unfinished business as a player.
"I might not be the most athletic, the fastest, the strongest, whatever it may be," he said, "but if I can know what's coming a little bit before someone else, that's a positive for me and the team."