IOWA CITY — The players had an idea of where they wanted to go. The coaches, well, they know how recruiting goes.
At first blush, middle linebackers Max Bullough and James Morris appear destined for their current universities. Bullough’s father, Shane, and his grandfather, Hank, competed for Michigan State in byegone eras. Morris’ father, Greg, for years has served as Iowa’s football equipment manager. Both players grew up in their current state — Bullough in Traverse City, Mich.; Morris in Solon, Iowa — and were avid fans of their schools.
Neither coach took their recruitment for granted, no matter how it was viewed from the outside.
“We had to work at it,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said of Bullough. “But I think it was the things that we did in terms of how we presented ourselves and the opportunity to play here in this defense and be a middle linebacker that eventually got him to be a Spartan. Nothing’s easy.”
“That ended up fairly early, but I still got grilled by (Morris’) mom,” Ferentz said. “She wanted to sit down, and I got 30 questions. I got them and they were pointed and all that kind of stuff, but that’s part of recruiting, too. It’s like being a consumer: you have the right to ask anything, and I think it’s smart that people do that. To her credit, she did. It wasn’t totally painless, but it wasn’t too bad.”
Both linebackers are two-year captains and anchor two of the nation’s best defenses. Michigan State allows just 188.8 yards per game, the best in the country. Iowa ranks seventh at 265.6 yards. Morris is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Bullough was first-team all-Big Ten last year. Ourlads Scouting Services list both among the top 10 middle linebackers entering next year’s NFL draft. And both are the perfect fit at their respective schools.
Bullough (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) has a Spartan heart pierced with an Irish arrow. Shane Bullough was a Michigan State captain and first-team all-Big Ten linebacker in 1986. Hank Bullough was an all-Big Ten honorable mention guard for the 1954 Spartans, which won the Rose Bowl. His uncle, Chuck Bullough, was a first-team all-Big Ten linebacker for MSU 1991. His mother’s brother, Bobby Morse, was an honorable mention all-Big Ten running back for MSU in 1986.
But Notre Dame runs deep in his veins as well. His other grandfather, Jim Morse, led the Fighting Irish in receiving in 1955 and 1956, and the latter year he was Notre Dame’s only team captain. Another uncle, Jim Morse, played cornerback at Notre Dame in 1976-77. The Morse Recruiting Lounge on Notre Dame’s campus sports the Irish’s 11 championship banners.
Bullough grew up as a fan of both schools. It was a tough decision.
“It was a decision between Michigan State and Notre Dame when it came down to it,” Bullough said. “ But I was going to come to Michigan State because my dad played here. Ultimately that’s what put me over the edge.”
Morris (6-2, 240) was his state’s best high school player as a junior and senior. He grew up just 10 miles north of Iowa City and described recruiting his experience as open-and-shut. When Ferentz offered him a scholarship, he quickly accepted, calling it a “no-brainer.”
Both became immediate impact players at their schools. Neither player red-shirted, both played in all 13 games and Morris started six times. Midway through their senior seasons, both players have 30-plus starts.
They also get it done in the classroom. This week both were named semifinalists for the prestigious National Scholar-Athlete Award, which honors a senior with a GPA of at least 3.2. The award requires strong leadership and citizenship. That’s where their success starts, their coaches say.
“There’s something in (Bullough) as a person, the ultra-competitiveness and the desire and love for this place that goes beyond those abilities,” Dantonio said. “You see that and you feel that when you talk and you listen to him. Those are the things that are most impressive. It’s not just the player; it’s the quality of person within that player that’s the ultimate difference maker.”
As for Morris, Ferentz said: “Nobody prepares any harder, works any harder and he does things the way you’d hope anybody would do and he backs it up every Saturday.”
There are even more similarities. At Michigan State, Shane Bullough played under defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who coached Morris for two seasons. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker played alongside Shane for three years.
Max Bullough and Morris are physical at the point of attack. They’re vocal and intense. They lead by example, but like all great players, they have their distinctions, too.
“They’re different players in their own way,” Ferentz said. “Our systems are different, and they’re equally as important to their respective teams. That’s the common denominator.”That’s also their legacy.