First, yeast should become quite active when "proofed," mixed prior to adding it to flour. But I'm a little confused. Did you mix the yeast and sugar in water? Yeast needs water to come to life. The sugar gives it a bit of food to work on immediately, but sugar isn't essential to proofing. Good yeast, when mixed with lukewarm water, should begin to produce gas after several minutes.
You say you didn't need to let the dough rise before forming the rolls. Was that because the recipe had no such step? How about kneading the dough? Was that covered? Yeast breads normally require kneading (or some other measure) to correctly form the glutten, which is what provides the structure that traps the gasses from the yeast.
It is always best, when asking a question like this, to provide the recipe, so folks can comment according to what you are actually doing. But in general, the yeast is always suspect until it proves it is active. If the yeast is mixed with a little lukewarm water and a pinch of sugar, it should go to work in short order, clouding up and producing many bubbles at the surface. It should look alive.
But one should not use too much sugar at this stage. If too much sugar is present, the yeast can become exhausted before the right time. It should be working continuously, living and producing gas right into the oven, so that the heat can stablize the dough and permanently trap the gas.
And if the proofing water or any other liquid added to the dough is too hot, it can kill the yeast. Water as hot as the typical kitchen tap will provide is too hot. Too much salt, too, can retard yeast growth, but that's not a common problem. Some salt is often used in a recipe to keep the yeast from becoming exhausted too early.
When encountering rising problems, always begin by testing the yeast. You should see something like this. If it's not at least this active, it's probably too old.