Bucs rookie Riley Bullough a surprise star after 'Hard Knocks'

Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough (49) is pictured during training camp Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough (49) is pictured during training camp Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Aug. 9, 2017

If there was an unexpected star from Tuesday's debut episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks" from Bucs training camp, it was undrafted rookie linebacker Riley Bullough, who drew praise from Dirk Koetter, impressed Jameis Winston with his singing and shared a nickname he picked up for his long hair.

Bullough, who comes from a long line of football players at Michigan State, stole several scenes in the HBO show, most impressively by the way Koetter called him out by name in a team meeting as someone who could show leadership while working as a third-string middle linebacker.

"It was awesome to see that, and I got a bunch of texts," Bullough said after Wednesday's practice. "Just happy they showed me in a good light. ... (The meeting) was probably the best moment I've had since I've been here. I've been working hard, and bringing passion and energy to the game is what I pride myself on. For him to notice that and say that in a team meeting meant a lot."

Bullough, 23, had an intense, colorful debut to say the least -— swearing at a tackling sled each time he hit it, then dropping Winston's jaw in a sequence of rookies called up on stage to sing in front of their teammates. His long hair earned him the nickname "Joe Dirt" — from the 2001 David Spade movie — and while he objected on air, he said Wednesday he did some research and understands the reference. "The resemblance is there, I guess," he said.

Linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who wooed the 6-foot-2, 228-pound prospect as an undrafted free agent who had offers from about 20 NFL teams, said his leadership was apparent as they scouted him at Michigan State.

"He was a leader at Michigan State, a guy we could see was orchestrating the defense," Duffner said. "He came here with the same mentality, that it wasn't too big for him. The guy's highly competitive, he's bright, he's an instinctive football player. And he's a rock star now."

The Bullough name is well-known at Michigan State — he followed brother Max there, and younger brother Byron is now a Spartans linebacker. His father Shane and uncle Chuck played there, and his grandfather Hank played for the Spartans and then the Packers in the 1950s, and was head coach with the Bills in 1984-85.

Duffner, 64, knows the Bullough family as well as anyone — he knew Hank when he was a young coach, watched Shane play at Moeller High when he was a Bengals coach, knew Chuck when he was an assistant at Syracuse and recruited Max as an undrafted free agent when he was with the Dolphins.

"I know all of them, really," Duffner said. "It's a phenomenal family, and the best athlete's the younger sister (Holly). She's a runner and she's better than any of them."

There's football on his mother Lee Ann's side as well — grandfather Jim Morse was a captain at Notre Dame in 1956, uncle Jim Morse Jr. also played at Notre Dame and uncle Bobby Morse played at Michigan State and in the NFL.

Much of that football family will drive down from Michigan for Friday's preseason opener at Cincinnati — they'll be thrilled to see him, even more so than they were waiting to see him Tuesday night.

"We were a little nervous when he heard he was getting interviewed," Shane said. "We were happy they focused on some of the positive things. ... Football's been in our family for a long time. For several generations, we've been football players. It's great to see Riley get his chance now to show what he can do and live his dream."

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