Lenard Tillery remembers when individual milestones were put into perspective for him.
Senior quarterback Dray Joseph had just broken the Southern record for career passing yards two seasons ago when Tillery, then a freshman running back, approached him.
“I sat down and I was trying to congratulate him, and he just looked at me and said none of that really matters,” Tillery recalled. “”You get your name in the books and stuff like that, but unless you win championships, nobody cares.”
Joseph went on to break the school record for touchdown passes as he helped the Jaguars win a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. So when Tillery became Southern’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 11 years last season, it meant little after losing to Alcorn State in the SWAC title game.
“I could have had 3,000 yards last year and no championship, and it wouldn’t have mattered,” Tillery said. “You can’t get caught up in what can I do for me? You have to look at what’s the whole goal? Is the team getting better? Is that run I made good for the team? If you go for 200 yards in a game and y’all still lose, it’s still a loss.”
So another 1,000-yard season isn’t in the front of Tillery’s mind during preseason camp.
“If I go for 200 yards and we get a championship, I would be very content,” Tillery said. “Now don’t get me wrong. I’d love to have 1,000 yards. Our offensive line wants to block, they want me to get 1,000 yards, they want me to get 1,500 yards. But we just have to make sure that the No. 1 thing is the No. 1 thing, and that’s winning.”
If the Jaguars are going to make another championship run, they’ll need to run the ball as effectively as they did last season, but they might not need Tillery to match the 1,196 yards he finished with.
Senior Malcolm Crockett is capable of gaining more than the 281 yards he was limited to during an injury-plagued season after transferring from Pitt last year.
“I went down last year, and a couple of the running backs went down, and Tillery stepped up and did a hell of a job,” Crockett said. “I just want to get back and complement him. This year I’m healthy, and my goal is to stay healthy all season so me and Tillery can have a one-two punch dominating the SWAC. At the end of the day, we’re both workhorses.”
Southern lost its second- and fourth-most productive running backs from last season when Tyre Bracken (440 yards) and Jamarcus Jarvis (110) left the program during the offseason.
But the Jaguars still have plenty of depth behind Tillery and Crockett. Herm Edwards and John West have experience, and Londres Johnson and Dakota Starks have shown promise.
“I think the first two (running backs) are really good,” coach Dawson Odums said. “Now, where are three and four going to come from? Somebody’s got to step up, and you can count on somebody stepping up and giving us depth at that position.”
At this time last season, Tillery, Crockett, Jarvis and Bracken were in a logjam before Tillery separated himself.
“You couldn’t tell any difference between when he was No. 4 or No. 1 on the depth chart,” running backs coach Elvis Joseph said of Tillery. “He came to work the same way every day.
“He’s a gamer, he’s a student of the game, he looks forward to competing. He’s doing the same thing now. You couldn’t tell the difference between this year and last year because he just has a great work ethic or he wouldn’t have gotten to where he’s at today.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.