During Michigan State's practice Monday, linebacker Max Bullough went over to the players on the scout team and delivered a simple message.
We need you guys.
"I just wanted to relay to them how important they were," Bullough said. "Without the scout team, you're not ready for the game. A lot of those guys are big-time recruits. They're having a heck of a senior year [in high school] and they come here expecting to do all these big things and then they get put on scout team. That kind of hits them hard.
"I never had to go through that."
That's the thing about Bullough. He hasn't paid his dues. He hasn't slogged on the scout team and spent years buried on the depth chart. He has been fast-tracked to a major role.
When Michigan State issued its depth chart for tonight's season-opener against Youngstown State, Bullough appeared as the No. 1 middle linebacker. The other two linebacker spots list co-starters, but the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Bullough stands alone.
"Max deserves that opportunity to be the clear-cut starter," coach Mark Dantonio said.
Bullough came to Michigan State with big-time accolades, enrolled early, was labeled in spring ball as a true freshman who would see time and appeared in all 13 games last season, recording 23 tackles. With former All-American Greg Jones moving on, Bullough is the next man in at middle linebacker.
"He was waiting in the gate," Dantonio said. "He came here with the idea that he would be an understudy for one year and then step into that position."
Bullough has indeed made a rapid rise, but he's not about to apologize for it. He won't be a sheepish leader just because he's a sophomore.
The coaches have tabbed him Michigan State's starting middle linebacker for a reason, and he fully intends to run with the role.
"When camp came around," Bullough said, "it really hit me in the face and I was like, 'Alright, I’ve got do this. This is my job. This is who I am. And if I don't do it, it's not going to get done. We're going to be a better football team if I do this.'"
Bullough has led before, serving as a captain for two years at St. Francis High School in Traverse City, Mich., where he helped the team win two state championships. He comes from a family steeped in college football: his grandfather, father and two uncles played for Michigan State, while his other grandfather and another uncle played for Notre Dame.
He has no shortage of resources, whether it's family members, former teammates like Jones or current teammates like senior safety Trenton Robinson.
The best advice he's received?
"To not be afraid to step up and be the leader," Bullough said. "What's the worst that’s going to happen? Most likely you're going to get the respect that you deserve and we're going to move forward and be a better team because of it."
Bullough didn't encounter any resistance in camp.
"The seniors are where it's hardest to earn respect because they've been here," he said. "I talked to them and we discussed leadership things all the time, what we should do here, who we should talk to. And I think we've really come a long way. Our team has great chemistry to begin with, so it's really easy for guys to stand in front."
Bullough will stand in the heart of the Spartans' defense tonight when he makes his first career start. He saw the field a bit in Michigan State's base package last season but spent more time in nickel and on special teams, where he tied for second on the squad with 13 tackles.
But his field time will spike this season, along with his responsibilities. Bullough is determined to prove he can shoulder the burden, despite his age.
"I haven't been able to do it, obviously, because we haven't had a game," he said. "That's the final step to give the concrete to my position, the concrete to my job as a leader. That's really going to make it or break it these next few weeks."