UNION MILLS — Football holds plenty of promise for Matt Mulligan, a South Central sophomore who could easily be mistaken for a senior.
The problem was, football has lost its luster at New Buffalo, the small Michigan school he attended as a freshman last year.
"I don't think college recruiters are looking for a small school eight-on-eight player," Mulligan said. "I just feel like the kids at New Buffalo in the summer don't want to do anything. They don't want to play football anymore. I don't know why."
Neither New Buffalo nor neighboring Bridgman had enough players to field a team, so the schools combined forces, becoming the South County Cougars. Even so, there were only 30-some players between the two, and the season produced numerous blowouts and just one win.
"It was kind of like, 'Remember The Titans,'" Mulligan said. "I didn't know anybody. (The schools) were kind of like rivals. It was kind of iffy at the start, but eventually we started to come together. New Buffalo was Class D (smallest) and Bridgman Class C. Combined, we were low B, high C. We were playing bigger schools, which is why we got smacked."
With Michigan adopting eight-man football this year, the Cougars were a one-year deal, and the Mulligans didn't see a future there for Matt. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder was the only freshman on the South County varsity, starting at linebacker and later at running back.
"(Eight on eight) will be really different," he said. "They shrink the width of the field. My dad (Brian) graduated from (South Central), he was like, 'Why not come back here?'"
The family has a house in New Buffalo, but lives in La Porte. By coincidence, one of Mulligan's teachers is a cousin of Slicers' offensive line coach Bob James, and put them in contact. Mulligan's older sister attended La Porte, but he said the family preferred the smaller school environment for him. In May, they took a tour of South Central with principal Ben Anderson, and spoke to football coach Buzz Schoff and basketball coach Joe Wagner. By the end of the prior school year, Mulligan was enrolled at South Central (which has open enrollment) for 2019-20.
"We don't get transfers like that very often," Schoff said. "He's been 100 percent South Central. The last day of school, he played a basketball game for South Central the next day. The day he finished school, he was in the weight room, at basketball practice. He jumped right in."
It didn't take Schoff long to realize Mulligan was going to be an impact player.
"His dad was nervous, being a new school, is his kid getting a fair shake?" Schoff said. "He's going to get a fair shake. He made friends real fast. He's coachable. He understands what we're trying to do. He picked it up pretty quick. A lot of times, you get a new kid, they're afraid to ask a question and he's the first one to ask. We were trying to get the No. 2s some reps, he's playing middle linebacker for Knox's 4-3 defense and asks, what's my read? That's not a question you get from a sophomore transfer."
Mulligan will play the SAM linebacker for S.C., working at tight end and running back on offense.
"He's a big pickup," Schoff said. "That's one of the big questions we had. Looking at the offense, you have to establish your quarterback. Looking at the defense, you have to establish the SAM linebacker. We're going to count on him to be the guy. He'll run up the middle. He's not going to make anybody miss, but he's a big guy who can lower his shoulder. He's the type of guy you'll see out in the flat with 20 yards of open field and he'll go find somebody to run over. He wants to play college football and his work ethic and size, he's going to look the part before he's done."
Though he's only been a Satellite for a few months, Mulligan feels like he's one of the guys.
"I didn't know anybody before workouts and I feel like the guys came to me with open arms and accepted me. They really like me," he said. "I'm really excited. It's a great opportunity. I'm grateful that coach looks at me that way. The thing is, New Buffalo is a way smaller school. It's a different style of football here. It's going to be more competitive, tough, harder hitting. I'm ready."
With Greater South Shore Conference and Sectional 41 reconfigured, there's a window of success for South Central and Mulligan is eager to help them climb through.
"I heard they didn't do so well last year, but if we bring it every Friday night, there's definitely a chance at a conference and sectional championship," he said. "It's a really good group of guys. I think we can go pretty far."