When anybody talks about the early-season surprises in the NFL, it’s hard to look past what is going on in Detroit. The Lions are one of only two undefeated teams, and are off to a 5-0 start for the first time since 1956.
The stage was set for the Lions first Monday Night Football appearance in 10 years, and a record crowd of 67,861 turned out at Ford Field to watch a 24-13 win over division rival Chicago Monday night.
Wolfpack fans will recognize a familiar face calling out the plays at middle linebacker, as former Pack playmaker Stephen Tulloch is in his first season with the Lions after spending five years with the Tennessee Titans.
“It is a really good vibe up here right now,” said the former 2005 first-team All-ACC linebacker. “We have a really young team, but all these guys really believe in what we are trying to do. It is a good atmosphere, and we all really take pride in how the city has reacted.”
Tulloch currently leads the Lions in solo tackles (28), and is second in total tackles (32). He had an interception in the Lions come-from-behind win at Dallas last week.
“The organization here has such an appreciation for the players,” said Tulloch. “There is a real commitment here to build, and to keep the players around that want to be part of that.”
Tulloch’s success should come as no surprise to NC State fans. A fourth-round draft pick in 2006, he saw spot action his first two years in Tennessee and then started the last three seasons averaging, 121.7 tackles a year.
Last season Tulloch finished second in the NFL with 160 tackles, 53 more than any other Titan.
“I feel like last year was just another year for me,” said Tulloch. “Yes it was good to put up those kind of numbers, but it’s also my job. I feel like I’ve been making a lot of tackles over the last few years on all the teams I’ve played on.
“From high school, to NC State and now in the NFL, it’s always been my job to get to the ball. I’ve been fortunate to have good players around me, and that always makes my job easier if they are clearing space or occupying blockers. It was a good year, but you can always get better.”
Once the season was over however, Tulloch faced some uncertainty. Not only was he a free agent, but with the NFL lockout taking up almost the entire summer, Tulloch was without a team until he signed a one-year deal worth $3.25 million right before training camp.
“I had an opportunity for a long-term contract, but I decided not to take it because I thought the opportunity in Detroit was something I wanted to explore,” said Tulloch. “I wanted to come up here and win, bring my leadership and my experience and help a team that I definitely saw was on the rise.
“It was a tough year to be a free agent because of the lockout. We had no idea when that was going to end, then when it did, it was so close to training camp that the market was flooded and everything was hurried. I knew I wouldn’t have the chance a free agent normally would have by going out and visiting teams.”
But there was one familiarity for Tulloch in Detroit in the form of third-year head coach Jim Schwartz. When Tulloch was drafted in 2006, Schwartz was the defensive coordinator for Tennessee. Tulloch played under Schwartz his first three years in the league.
“Understanding his scheme and the way he goes about coaching, I was very comfortable with the Lions,” said Tulloch. “All of that really helped me to make my decision.”
And Schwartz was more then happy to upgrade his linebacking unit that ranked 19th in rushing yards allowed last season with a stout middle linebacker he was more than familiar with.
“Our linebacker corps obviously is much improved,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz told Yahoo.com. “It’s not just the quality of the players, it’s the depth that we have, too.”
Tulloch’s former head coach at NC State has also been watching his progression in the NFL.
“So many schools totally missed on him coming out of high school, but we were certainly lucky to get him up here,” said former head coach Chuck Amato. “He was a natural linebacker with great instincts. He was quick, and his motor never stopped.
“As soon as he left here, those traits helped him be successful early on in Tennessee. It doesn’t surprise me one bit the success he has found in the NFL. He is making everybody proud. Especially his mom.”
Another former Wolfpack defensive player has also found playing time this season with the Lions. Willie Young is in his second year in Detroit, and not only has seen action at defensive end, but has recorded a sack in each of the last two games.
“Willie is still the same Willie you saw at NC State,” said Tulloch. “He has been improving ever since he left NC State. He has always been explosive and fast to the ball, and that is something all of us learned from Coach Amato.
“You can tell that mentality of always getting to the ball has helped a lot of players that Coach Amato helped get to the NFL, and Willie has definitely brought that attitude to Detroit.”
Tulloch has certainly made an impact on the field in Detroit, but he has also dedicated his time and efforts in the community.
He has partnered with former NBA and Michigan standout Jalen Rose at his charter school, asking students to write essays about leadership, with a chance to be among the 55 children he hosts each game. He also plans to help 55 kids from a facility that aids homeless kids to get their teeth cleaned this month and invited 80 breast cancer survivors this past Monday night to line the tunnel before kicking off against Chicago.
“I think it is important to be a role model when you get to the NFL,” said Tulloch. “I had a good upbringing, with a lot of positive people in my circle growing up. My mom did a tremendous job of raising me, so giving back to the community and helping others has been something I take pride in.”
Just over a quarter of the way through the season, it is hard not to wonder where Tulloch will be next year, as he will once again be a free agent at the end of the season.
“I have always been a guy who believes you must earn it,” said Tulloch. “So I need to keep going out there and making plays and helping this team get better. Once the season is over, I’m sure everything will take care of itself as long as I do my part on the field.”
While Tulloch will not be able to make it back to a game this season at Carter-Finley, he has come back to visit in the spring and watches as many Pack games on TV as he can.
“I follow NC State every game, and try to stay up with what is going on back in Raleigh through various people pretty well,” said Tulloch. “I’ve had the chance to come back for the big reunion during the Spring Game, and enjoy all those college experiences.”
By Brian Reinhardt
Raleigh, N.C. (www.gopack.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/101211aab.html)