There may be more than five months until Southern opens its football season Aug. 30 at the University of Houston, but one running back has already begun to emerge as the clear frontrunner in the backfield.
Sophomore Lenard Tillery shined in Southern’s spring scrimmage finale Saturday, busting out for 111 yards on 18 carries to easily lead all rushers on the afternoon. Southern ranked last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2012, averaging just 79.5 yards per game on the ground.
But behind a rejuvenated O-line and a new offensive system, first-year coach Dawson Odums thinks 2013 may be a different story.
“I think we ran the ball the best we’ve ran it since we’ve been here,” Odums said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “Lenard Tillery ran the ball really well, and he is going to be a great running back for us going into the fall.”
The rest of the running backs combined for just 60 yards, compared to Tillery’s 6.2 yard-per-carry average. The McKinley High alum called his outing Saturday “decent at best,” but his efforts clearly impressed Odums, who tabbed Tillery as the lead man for the starting job heading into the fall.
“If you look at the film, I’m quite sure he made a few mistakes, but we saw (Saturday) that he possesses some good talent,” Odums said. “It’s something that we haven’t seen around here in a long time - a good running back that can run with speed and power.”
That dynamic combination of skills is what Tillery said separates himself from the rest of the tailbacks fighting for playing time, but the second-year running back was even more quick to point out his areas that need improvement.
“I feel like I did pretty good on a lot of drives … but you can always do better,” Tillery said. “I had good moves, but I would always get tripped up. I feel like I have to work on a lot when I get into the open field and finishing the play. I’ve got to work on that during the summer so I can be good in the fall.”
As a whole, the coaching staff was pleased with the outcome from Saturday’s scrimmage, but one area did trigger a slight cause for concern.
Southern committed 12 penalties on the afternoon — eight of which were false starts — for a total of 90 yards in setbacks. Odums refused to make excuses for the sloppy play, but chalked some of the struggles up to the new, hurry-up style offense being implemented this spring.
“We’re trying to introduce a new no-huddle system,” Odums said. “The communication with the linemen should never be an excuse for it. They should be able to sit there holding (their position), but the good thing about it is we’ve got time to get better. Those are some of the things we’ve got to do a good job correcting.”
Southern ranked No. 7 in the SWAC a season ago, committing 104 penalties in 11 games (9.5 per game) for an average of 75.3 penalty yards per contest.
Two of the flags Saturday were holding calls and the two others were personal fouls late in the afternoon — which Odums said was unacceptable.
“No coach likes penalties, and I didn’t like the number of penalties we had today, especially at the end with the two unsportsmanlike,” said Odums.
Southern returns a slew of starters on the defensive side of the ball, but it was the group of new faces and up-and-comers who proved their worth Saturday afternoon.
The second-team defense battled the first-team offense for a majority of the scrimmage but still managed to keep a clean sheet all the way through.
“We’re not surprised because at practice we go through the same stuff every day,” senior linebacker Detrane Lindsey said of the defensive effort. “If we just stay focused, everything will come through. Even though it was against our teammates, we go real hard on them.”
The defense in total chalked up four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumble recoveries — and gave up just 13 points all afternoon.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to need those folks to score,” first-year linebacker coach Lorick Atkinson said with a laugh. “We’re all on the same team now. I was real impressed with our 2’s. I thought our (No. 2) defense came in and played very hard, and that’s what you’ve got to have. We’re trying to build some depth.”
While it’s still yet to be seen what Odums can accomplish in a full season as head coach, it’s taken just weeks for him to establish a new culture on campus.
“Coach Odums is rubbing off on us pretty well,” said senior quarterback Dray Joseph. “It’s becoming a family. It’s the most family-oriented team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Joseph said he’s seen Odums and the different offensive and defensive units go out to eat together regularly and feels that this group is more tight-knot than ever before.
That vibe isn’t reserved for the upperclassmen either. Odums’ philosophy has trickled down all the way to the newcomers, including transfer defensive back Dionte McDuffy, who is in his first semester at Southern.
“I love it,” said McDuffy. “I’m getting along with the team and I really like the vibe we have when we’re all around each other. We all laugh and play and have a great time.”