Ask an NFL rookie if he would like to hear the head coach call out his name in a team meeting, and he will probably hesitate to respond. There's potential for disaster there, or at least embarrassment, perhaps in the form of some less-than-ideal practice footage.
As anyone who watched the premiere of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday night knows, undrafted rookie linebacker Riley Bullough got just that sort of surprise during the first week of camp. Fortunately for him, Head Coach Dirk Koetter was delivering a compliment, using Bullough as an example of the type of effort and enthusiasm he would like to see on the practice field.
Every Hard Knocks season makes stars out of some of the lesser-known players in the league, and Bullough appears ticketed for that ride this summer. The show is almost certain to chronicle more of his story as he attempts the very difficult task of going from undrafted status to a spot on the 53-man roster. Considering how his story arc began on Tuesday night, Bullough seems fine with the extra attention. After all, the one thing a young roster hopeful wants in training camp is to get noticed for doing something right.
"Yeah, that was awesome," Bullough conceded. "That was probably the best moment I've had since I've been here. It's just great because I've been working hard, and for me bringing passion and energy to the game is what I pride myself on. For him to notice that and to say that in a team meeting meant a lot."
As one might expect, Bullough enjoyed Episode One of Hard Knocks, which also caught him delighting his veteran teammates with a different but impressive take on a Fetty Wap song. All the rookies had to get on stage and sing for the team, and while it definitely went better for some (Bullough and quarterback Sefo Liufau) than others (Justin Evans and Maurice Fleming), it was a very entertaining scene throughout.
"I think they did a great job," said Bullough, who found out at exactly the same time as the rest of the viewing public that he would have a featured role in the show. "I'd been mic'd up for a couple practices and I did an interview with them but I wasn't sure if they were going to use it. But they did and it was awesome to see that. I got a bunch of texts. I'm just happy that it showed me in a good light and made the team look great, so it was fun to watch."
The perfect Hard Knocks story would end in Bullough getting a call on September 2 telling him he had survived the last round of cuts. There is certainly no guarantee of that, but he has a shot, as do all of the team's undrafted rookies. A year ago, the Buccaneers kept five undrafted rookies on their 53-man roster to open the season.
"He is a good communicator, I'm sure you saw that," said Koetter of the young prospect from Michigan State. "But, the guy has been well schooled. He's facing an uphill climb, but there's guys like that every year. Adam Humphries is a guy like that, Cameron Brate is a guy like that. There's guys that show up: Javien Elliot. There's going to be guys that show up, whether he's one of them or not, that's what the preseason is for."
The Buccaneers are set at two of their three starting linebacker spots with the star-caliber duo of Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. The open spot on the strong side appears to be a battle between Devante Bond and rookie Kendell Beckwith, and it seems likely both will remain on the regular-season roster. That leaves perhaps two spots, depending upon how deep the team chooses to go at the different defensive positions for returning players Adarius Glanton and Cameron Lynch, CFL import Jeff Knox and the two undrafted rookies, Bullough and Mississippi State's Richie Brown.
All of those players battling for reserve linebacker spots will almost certainly have to show value on special teams to get an initial foothold on the roster. A little positional versatility might help, as well. In Bullough's case, he's hoping that an ability to run the defense and communicate well with his fellow defenders will give him an edge. It's a role he relishes.
Photos from Tuesday's Hard Knocks Premiere event.
"That's something that I learned at Michigan State, is I wanted to be the MIKE linebacker," said Bullough. "I wanted to be the guy, the quarterback of the defense. That's an important job, and me playing middle linebacker here it's no different. The biggest thing is I want to understand what all the positions are doing because that helps me, and then that allows me to also help other people maybe get down the line sometimes, or just be able to talk in general. So it's something that's important to me."
The next episode of Hard Knocks will cover the team's preseason opener at Cincinnati on Friday night. There will likely be more footage of Koetter pointing out good and bad performances in that first game, and players will begin to separate themselves on the depth chart. That's the next opportunity for Bullough to keep his storyline headed in the right direction.
"He's a competitive dude," said Koetter. "He played at Michigan State, that's big time football. He's going to take another step up Friday night."
One of the taglines Hard Knocks often uses to describe training camp is, "It's the toughest five weeks of their lives." Without a doubt, it is a physical struggle, and the mental hurdles are particularly tough on newcomers to the league. Bullough's older brother Max, another Michigan State linebacker who made it in the league as an undrafted free agent (with Houston), told him to "keep grinding."
"[Max] has been through three camps and Hard Knocks, too, so he's been through it all," said the younger Bullough. "His biggest thing is, you've just got to keep grinding. It's hard, it's long, it's five, six weeks of work straight. You've just got to stay focused and day-in, day-out be ready to work. That's what I've been trying to do.
"It's tough, but at the same time it's fun. You're out here playing the game that you love with this great team. It's just an awesome environment. So far obviously it's been tough but at the same time it's been a lot of fun."