Two years ago, Stephen Tulloch thought he was ready to be the Tennessee Titans’ starting middle linebacker.
He wasn’t, at least not in the eyes of the coaching staff, losing out to Ryan Fowler, who had just signed as a free agent in the off-season.
But Tulloch used coming up short as motivation to better learn his craft, supplanting Fowler early last season. Now, Tulloch is an up-and-coming young star on the Titans defense, while Fowler is no longer in Tennessee. He was released in final cuts and a few days later picked up by the New York Jets.
“I was very motivated. That was a big stepping stone. I had to overcome to show people. Outsiders were saying Tulloch is going to get replaced; he’s going to get released and all the stuff people said about me,” Tulloch said. “That situation made me work even harder. I wasn’t working hard enough, obviously for them to give me the opportunity at the time, but here I am now.”
When Tulloch first arrived as a rookie from North Carolina State in 2006, his nose for the football and making tackles became quickly evident. It was the other intricacies of being a starting middle linebacker that were lacking – things like staying in his gap and playing within the scheme, learning how to shed blockers rather than run around them and how to win at the point of attack.
“When he first got here, his hand usage, he’ll tell you, he had no idea how to get off a block with his hands. He worked hard on that, and he was willing to learn,” linebackers coach Dave McGinnis said. “We took it from just a fundamental step one all the way up, and now he’s one of the best guys we have doing it. But it’s taken work, and he’s worked at it. None of this is by accident. And he is by no means a finished product yet.”
Tulloch credits McGinnis for helping him in the classroom and on the practice field with his improvement in those areas.
“Coach Mac worked with me. He guided me in the right direction. He sat down and taught me my alignments, helped me with my assignments, to be here or be there,” Tulloch said. “Over time, my last three years here, it’s definitely paid off. The sky’s the limit for my ability. He believes in me and Coach Fisher believes in me.”
And why not? A case in point was the season opener in Pittsburgh. Because a knee problem kept David Thornton out of the game in nickel situations, Tulloch, who used to leave the field when nickelback Vincent Fuller came on, stayed in, and had a standout performance with 12 total tackles, including eight solo stops, in the game.
The process of Tulloch’s evolution came about through his added work, and once he began to respond, he also began to earn the trust of McGinnis.
“You can’t be just a sometimes guy as a middle linebacker. You have to be right, so until you’re right, I’m not going to play a guy,” McGinnis said. “He knew that, too, but he worked his [butt] off at it. When he started becoming more right than wrong and that natural instinct that he had took over, then all of a sudden, he’s a natural player in the right place, and then you’ve got something.”
His teammates have taken notice of Tulloch’s improvement over the past few seasons.
“There’s no question. He makes a big difference for our defense when he’s out there. He’s always been downhill hitting people and physical, but now that he’s more comfortable with our defense, he knows where to be on every play,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. “He’s never out of position. It used to be that we were very comfortable with him in short yardage situations, but now, he can cover guys. He’s sideline-to-sideline. He’s really evolved into one of the best middle linebackers in my opinion.”
Added fellow linebacker Keith Bulluck, “Every year, you want to see a player get better and better, and Tully has definitely gotten better.”
The fact that Tulloch has apparently developed the personality of a perfectionist in his craft doesn’t hurt either.
“Whenever I make a mistake, I’m mad at myself, because I know I’m much better, and I can be one of the best linebackers in this league, if I keep working hard and keep studying and keep focusing, and that’s the approach I’m taking,” Tulloch said.
Or as McGinnis puts it, Tulloch simply continues to soak up more and more knowledge of playing the middle linebacker position.
“What he’s done to this point is a product of the work he’s put in. He’s still got a long ways to go to improve, but he works at it,” McGinnis said. “He loves it, he works at it. He’s extremely coachable. He wants to know why and he wants to know how.”