Max Bullough keeps family tradition going

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Max Bullough doesn't need to look far to be reminded of the legacy he's carrying on at Michigan State.

In the Spartans' linebacker meeting room hangs a mural depicting great players from the school's past at the position. So every time Bullough watches film or hears instructions from his coach, images of his father, Shane, and uncle, Chuck, stare out at him.

Like Max, both were standout starting middle linebackers at Michigan State. Max's grandfather, Hank, starred for the Spartans in the 1950s. There's no escaping the history of the Bullough family and the expectations that go along with having that last name. And Max embraces it all.

"It's fun," he told ESPN.com. "Everyone always talks about pressure this, expectations that. But those expectations are already on myself because I put them there. It's cool to have those names on the wall and be a part of something bigger."

He is busy making his own name these days. Michigan State fans fretted last summer about how the team would replace two-time All-American linebacker Greg Jones, but by early fall it was clear those worries were unfounded. Bullough stepped into the starting role as a sophomore and promptly led the team in tackles with 89, adding seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi calls Bullough "probably the key to our whole defense" and the biggest leader on that side of the ball. That's saying something for a defense that finished sixth nationally and looks stacked again in 2012.

"I think linebacker was a question mark going into last year," Bullough said. "I hope we proved some people wrong."

It's the position Bullough was born to play. His father remembers when Bullough first started playing football at age 8 and he announced to the family, "I'm going to play middle linebacker at Michigan State."

He played defensive tackle his first year of football because he was bigger than the other kids. But from then on, linebacker was his home. His family tried not to push him into one direction and urged him to play as many sports as possible as a kid. Yet football was clearly his passion.

"One of his greatest strengths from early on was that after a game, he would come home and ask, 'OK what did I do wrong?'" says Shane Bullough, who played for the Spartans from 1983-86. "It wasn't, 'Tell me how good I did.' He had the confidence to where I could say, 'Well, you didn't do this every well,' or 'This issue needs work.' That just spurred him on to get better at that particular issue."

Shane helped coach Max in middle school and into high school. But when it came time for Max to pick a college, he tried to let his son make his own decision. Michigan State obviously had an inside edge, but so did Notre Dame, where Max's maternal grandfather and an uncle played. In the end, the idea of following in his father's footsteps proved irresistible.

"The fact that my dad played here, and the passion I saw he had whenever we'd come to games here, that made it hard to go any other way," Bullough said.

That also meant more pressure in having to live up to the family name. But the Bulloughs thrive on competition and challenges.

"Max has always handled it well and has never shied away from it," Shane Bullough said. "I'm sure in his mind -- and I believe it in my mind, too -- that he can potentially be better than all of us."

Playing linebacker is the family business, and business is good. The 6-foot-3 Bullough was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year and looks primed for a huge junior season. He has bulked up about 10 pounds from last year, up to 255, and will lead a defense that has as much depth as any Mark Dantonio has fielded in East Lansing.

The Bullough connection remains strong. Max said he gets pointers on his game from his uncle, Chuck, who is a Cleveland Browns assistant and the former UCLA defensive coordinator. His younger brother, Riley, is an incoming freshman who will arrive next month. Riley is projected as an outside linebacker, meaning he and his older brother could be on the field at the same time in the future.

"That's not paramount for us, but who wouldn't want to see that?" Shane Bullough says.

Only opposing ballcarriers.