O'Hara: Stephen Tulloch takes pride in his work ethic

Posted May 23, 2013

Even after being voted as the 63rd-best player in NFL Network's Top 100 players of 2013, and being honored as the Lions' unsung hero in the annual Gridiron Greats of Michigan Hall of Fame dinner, he hasn't forgotten the way his career began

Stephen Tulloch is trending upward in the changing of the guard of the NFC North's middle linebackers.
Stephen TullochLB Stephen Tulloch (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

Tulloch's peers paid him one of the biggest compliments of his NFL career last week in a poll of the top 100 players conducted by the NFL Network. Tulloch was voted the 63rd-best player for 2013 among all players at all positions.

Also last week, Tulloch was honored as the Lions' unsung hero in the annual Gridiron Greats of Michigan Hall of Fame dinner.

It made for a nice week for Tulloch, who hasn't forgotten the way his career began as a fourth-round draft pick by the Titans in 2006.

He spent two seasons as a backup before becoming a full-time starter in 2008. The Lions made him a priority signing when he became a free agent in 2011, and they re-signed him to a five-year contract last year.

Tulloch has been a dedicated, intense competitor at all levels of football – from high school, to North Carolina State and in the NFL with the Titans and Lions. Tulloch takes pride in his work ethic and is honored that his peers hold him in such high regard.

"It's cool," Tulloch said Wednesday after the Lions' first OTA workout when asked about making the Top 100. "I worked my butt off going on eight years, being a fourth-round pick and having to bust your butt to get where you're at.

"Having to scratch and claw and fight to get a job, for my peers to recognize me in the way they did, I really appreciate it."

Middle linebacker is more than a position. The best who play the position aren't push-button robots who perform without emotion or any connection to their teammates on defense.

There's a mentality that goes with the chief communicator of the unit. It requires preparation and leadership.

"I think so, from the standpoint of being the captain of the defense – making the calls and checks and being the force inside," Tulloch said.

The Lions have played in a division for more than a half century that has produced some of the best middle linebackers in the history of the position.

Joe Schmidt was a Hall of Fame middle linebacker who played on two of the Lions' three NFL champions of the 1950s. Schmidt went on to become head coach of the Lions.

The late Ray Nitschke is a Packers legend from Vince Lombardi's dynasty of the 1960s.

The Bears had a progression of Hall of Famers in the middle – Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. Brian Urlacher, one of the dominant players of his generation, announced his retirement from the NFL on Wednesday and should be a lock for the Hall of Fame.

As a member of the fraternity of middle men, Tulloch has an appreciation for the way Urlacher competed and the leadership qualities he exhibited over his 13-season career.

"The guy's been a beast," Tulloch said. "I played against him numerous times. I always used to clown around with him before and after the game. You talk about a guy who came out of New Mexico as a safety, moved to middle linebacker and dominated the position.

"A guy I looked up to – a magnificent athlete. The game is definitely going to be different without him."

This should be a different year for the Lions and their defense, with an expectation that it will be better than last year's 4-12 record.

Tulloch is in the middle of a re-designed cast in the front seven.

Jason Jones and rookie Ziggy Ansah are the new starting ends in place of Cliff Avril, who signed with Seattle as a free agent, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, who was released. Justin Durant, Tulloch's partner at outside linebacker the last two years, signed with Dallas. Ashlee Palmer has the inside track at Durant's spot.

The major changes in the secondary are the signing of strong safety Glover Quin and drafting cornerback Darius Slay in the second round.

Tulloch wants any newness to the defense to be worn off by the start of training camp with the work in the offseason.

"It's the fundamentals," he said. "Each day you want to install a little more and do a little more. When you get to training camp, you're running. There's no more breaking down different techniques. You get it. You don't get it, you're out – bring in another guy to get it.

"Now's the time to mess up, making your mistakes. In training camp, there's no time for errors."