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updated: 10/17/2013 2:09 PM

NFL defense latest to join Bullen's football resume

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Charlie Bullen chuckled about his lofty status in the Fremd football record book when it came to chucking the football.

"The key to that is not to throw a lot of passes," Bullen laughed of ranking fifth in program history for single-game completion percentage at 85.7 in 2002 against Elk Grove.

Now, Bullen's job is to make sure some of the best quarterbacks on the planet -- famed names such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger -- don't have the time to complete a large percentage of their passes. Bullen is in his second year with the defensive coaching staff of the Miami Dolphins and currently works with their defensive linemen.

"It's great ... and as we say, it's all-ball, all the time," the 29-year-old Bullen said last week during his first day off in three months since the Dolphins were in their bye week. "It's a good experience as a younger coach to try to learn the game and everything that goes into it."

It's been an interesting trip to the NFL and South Florida for Bullen. He took practice reps at defensive back but never played a varsity snap there at Fremd, was a quarterback when the now-defunct Harper College program won a non-scholarship school junior college national title in 2003 and got his first big coaching break through a failed attempt to make the University of Iowa roster as a walk-on.

"It's totally crazy," said Bullen, who was a general defensive assistant for the Dolphins last year. "I always thought I wanted to coach but I probably envisioned coaching in high school more. I knew I wanted to coach but I didn't know how it would unfold."

Bullen had a good base to start with by playing for a Fremd program that set Mid-Suburban League standards for consecutive playoff appearances with 16 and division titles with eight. Bullen said he and former quarterback Steve LaFalce, who played at Western Illinois, would talk about how well-prepared they were by head coach Mike Donatucci, one of the best defensive minds around who is now at Hoffman Estates, and offensive coordinator Steve Patton.

Bullen then sandwiched two stints at Harper around a year at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin before transferring to Iowa. He worked with the quarterbacks at Iowa City High as a volunteer assistant when a mutual friend got Bullen to throw with former Libertyville star Santino Panico, who was getting ready to play at Utah, during their winter break from school.

Panico told Bullen he should walk on at Iowa. Bullen decided to give it a shot and contacted quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe.

"He politely told me I wasn't good enough to play here," Bullen said with a laugh, "but he offered me an undergrad position with him."

Bullen worked with Iowa's quarterbacks for two years as a student assistant and then spent three years as a graduate assistant on the defensive side. Iowa was in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense during that time.

Working on Kirk Ferentz's staff, and with current Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, was an invaluable education.

"I wanted to learn the other side of the ball, and I felt confident enough having been a quarterback and knowing what defenses try to do to offenses," Bullen said. "I had to learn the techniques and (Parker) is phenomenal coach. He is as good a defensive backs coach as there is in the country."

Bullen had been checking out the job market in college and the NFL when Ferentz's experience as an NFL assistant and his connections helped lead the way to the Dolphins. Joe Philbin, who had worked for Ferentz at Iowa, became the Dolphins head coach in 2012 and brought in O'Keefe and Bullen on his staff.

Bullen was now coaching the best players in the world. Grown men who were his age or older and would quickly know if someone wasn't qualified for the job.

"It's like any challenge, there were definitely some unsettling thoughts heading into it," Bullen said. "But I got adjusted and started to take it all in and know what to expect. It was definitely an intimidating opportunity knowing I was at the highest level and I had never played at it and never coached at it.

"I knew it would be a tough challenge but it comes down to showing up every day and working. What I did draw confidence from was my training at Iowa. Ferentz spent time in the NFL and is a successful college coach who ran the program in a very professional manner."

This year has seen Bullen add his work with the Dolphins' defensive linemen to his previous responsibilities of breaking down video and producing playbook and scouting report drawings.

The days can be long and exhausting for Bullen, who didn't have much time for a honeymoon with his new wife Megan, a Naperville Central and Iowa grad, following their July 12 marriage. But the challenges of trying to stop the Buffalo Bills this week and then Brady and Patriots next week are also exhilirating.

That's why Bullen would love to continue moving up the coaching ladder at the NFL or collegiate level. Becoming a coordinator on either side of the ball or a head coach are definitely on the list of aspirations.

"At the root of it all as a coach, you're a teacher," Bullen said. "I enjoy coaching my position and either side of the ball, but it still comes down to interaction with the players, which is my favorite part of coaching."

• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at

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