EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was expected that Riley Bullough would replace his brother, Max, as Michigan State’s starting middle linebacker after next season.
Now it appears he could be starting one year sooner, and as the tailback successor to Le’Veon Bell.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said a major goal heading into the 2013 season is finding ways to be more creative on offense, and the Bullough “experiment” could be the most significant left-brain move he will make.
Riley had 11 carries for 46 yards and threw a 12-yard pass to his older brother in Saturday’s Green-White scrimmage. Those aren’t knock-your-eyes-out numbers, but what others said about his abilities on offense did demand attention.
Riley’s definitely excited about the prospect.
“It would be awesome just to fill in on offense or defense – wherever they need me,” Riley said. “But I really love playing tailback.”
Dantonio began to consider the possibility of moving the physical freshman to tailback in October, when Riley did an admirable job of portraying Iowa power back Mark Weisman on the scout team in practices.
Dantonio continued to ponder putting Riley on offense when spring practices began in March but kept his thoughts to himself. Dantonio wanted Riley to spend the first three weeks backing up Max, but decided to play his hunch out in the final two weeks of drills.
Said Riley: “He called me into his office and said, ‘What do you think of a little experiment at running back?’”
Those few practices went so well that generally everybody associated with the program sees him as the heir apparent to Bell, who left for the NFL after rushing for 1,793 yards as a junior.
Approaching Bell’s yardage would be asking too much, but Riley does bring a similar style of running that works well in the Big Ten.
“Riley Bullough did a nice job of running with the ball,” Dantonio said. “…In my mind, he complements our running-back situation. We’ll see what our freshmen do when they come in here, and will have to make some quick decisions in August.”
Where Riley plays depends on two things.
First, is one of the incoming freshmen tailbacks good enough to start? Gerald Holmes (Flint Carman-Ainsworth), R.J. Shelton (Beaver Dam, Wis.) and Delton Williams of Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep were highly recruited runners.
Second, is one of the incoming freshmen middle linebackers, Jon Reschke of Birmingham Brother Rice or Shane Jones of Cincinnati Moeller, ready to back up Max?
My bet is on Riley will be at tailback.
Nick Tompkins, Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill each need to make major improvements in order to start. Riley is the one who excites his coaches and teammates, and even a former Spartans center.
“He reminds me of another running back who came in as a linebacker named T.J. Duckett,” said Jason Strayhorn, the former MSU captain who was the analyst for the game on WJR-AM. “He runs with bad intentions.”
Riley runs to inflict pain of defenders.
“He gives us a powerful runner,” Dantonio said.
Speed is not Riley’s strong suit, but he displays good instincts for picking holes and a hard-nosed approach that includes blocking defensive ends. He was a dual-threat quarterback at Traverse City St. Francis, where he was the team’s offensive MVP as a sophomore and led the Gladiators to a state title along with Max.
Riley completed a key pass to Max on Saturday despite a heavy pass rush.
Said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi: “That was obviously the highlight of the day – Bullough to Bullough…(Riley) can make an impact out there right now.”
Riley smiled and noted that he completed a touchdown pass to Max in a state championship game, but it’s picking up tough yards that excites him.
He remembers Duckett, who rushed for 3,379 yards at MSU after moving from linebacker as a freshman in 1999, and enjoyed watching Jerome Bettis run.
“I want to get my own style,” Riley said, “but I’ve always loved power runners.”
So does Dantonio, which is why Riley’s the man for the job.
QB UPDATE: Dantonio kind of sort of has a starting quarterback.
“I think you leave here at the end of spring saying that (Andrew) Maxwell comes into the summer camp No. 1 based on knowledge and consistency in terms of performance,” Dantonio said. “I think Connor Cook pushes him, and quite frankly, (if) Cook doesn’t make mistakes that can be easily omitted, he’s right there.”
Cook completed 10 of 26 passes for 217 yards, while Maxwell connected on 9 of 20 attempts for 110 yards in the Green-White game.
Both quarterbacks had one touchdown pass, no interceptions and were sacked twice.