Southern running back Lenard Tillery doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to his history-making statistics.
But the offensive linemen who clear the way for him keep him apprised.
“They let me know how many away from 1,000 I am and how many away from all-time I am,” Tillery said.
The junior from McKinley High School is 25 yards from tying a school record by having a second consecutive 1,000-yard season and he needs an additional 87 to become the Jaguars’ career rushing leader.
“They’re excited,” Tillery said of the linemen, “and they’re going to make it easy for me.”
Tillery could reach both milestones when Southern plays its home finale against Alabama A&M on Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium. The Southwestern Athletic Conference’s leading rusher is averaging 121 yards per game in SWAC play.
“When we do our job he makes us look great,” tackle Eric Janeau said, “and even when we don’t, he makes us look good.”
Last season, Tillery became the Jaguars’ first 1,000-yard rusher in 11 seasons when he gained 1,196 yards in 13 games. He’s on pace to surpass that total in 11 games this season with two to play.
Steve Wofford was the last Southern running back to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (1997-98) and he’s the career rushing leader (3,015).
“I look at the numbers because I’ve been with Tillery for so long,” senior tackle Reginald Redding said. “He’s been my running back for three years now. So I always want to see him do great.”
Tillery has had four consecutive 100-yard games. Last week, he gained 111 in a little more than a half against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He was benched for the first quarter as punishment for missing breakfast earlier in the week, and was pulled after two fourth-quarter carries as Southern coasted to a 57-24 win.
“Sitting back and watching your guys play is not a good feeling,” Tillery said. “It was cold on the sideline, and I’m not used to sitting that long. When I went i,n I tried to make a play immediately. After about four plays, I was winded. I had to realize I hadn’t had time to warm up.”
Tillery ran for 35 yards on his first carry, jump-starting a touchdown drive. His trademark is running hard and breaking tackles and he said after the game he was trying to make up for lost time when he got in.
“He runs like he should play on defense,” linebacker Martin Henry said.
As a freshman two years ago, Tillery rushed for a team-high 784 yards, but he slipped to fourth on the depth chart during preseason camp last year after Malcolm Crockett, Jamarcus Jarvis and Tyre Bracken transferred in.
But eventually Tillery won the starting job and Jarvis and Bracken left the program after last season.
“A lot of people see A to Z, but they don’t see every step in between,” Tillery said. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity. When it’s taken away, then you have to work hard to get it back.”
Tillery said when he was growing up and dreaming of playing college football he would check out the weekly game previews for LSU and Southern in The Advocate.
“They used to do the players to watch and they had big old pictures of them with their stats,” Tillery said. “With LSU it was always a running back and with Southern it was always a quarterback. It just motivates you.”
Tillery’s arrival at Southern was followed by an evolving commitment to the run that has enabled the Jaguars to have a more balanced offense the past couple of years.
“Each year he has gotten better,” coach Dawson Odums said of Tillery. “When you perform that way and when you work as hard as that young man works, you’re deserving of the rewards that come with that and he’s deposited a lot of hours and a lot of energy and time into becoming the kind of running back that he is today.”