There’s this thing about Lenard Tillery that Austin Howard said a lot of people don’t know, something that should provide an extra element of amazement to Saturday’s potentially record-setting performance.
It goes back to when Howard arrived on Southern's campus as a freshman in 2014. Tillery was coming off a year in which he ran for a team-best 784 yards as a freshman on the Jaguars' SWAC championship team.
When Tillery and Howard practiced for the first time, they did it together at the bottom of the Southern depth chart as fourth-stringers.
“We told each other we were going to grind; we weren’t going to complain about it,” Howard said. “We were just going to grind and get to the top. Whatever happens, happens.”
They’ve stayed true to that pledge and have been rewarded.
Howard is in his third year as a starter and has established himself as one of the SWAC's top passers.
And Tillery? He’s about to be in a class of his own.
The Baton Rouge native has ripped off consecutive 1,100-yard seasons since he was buried on the depth chart three years ago. On his current track, he’s on pace for more than 1,400 yards in just 11 games this season — and he has only played in the fourth quarter three times this season.
Last year, he set Southern's career rushing mark. On Saturday, he has a good chance to set the SWAC’s all-time mark.
Tillery enters Saturday’s game at Alcorn State needing 113 yards to tie Destry Wright’s career mark of 4,050 rushing yards. Tillery has topped that mark in five of Southern’s six games this season.
It’s a testament of will for Tillery, who walked on at Southern out of McKinley High. He was a brash 18-year-old who was humbled by a redshirt year and a demotion. He has stayed the course.
The audacity of young Lenard Tillery was something else. It came easy as a byproduct of his …
It’s a testament to Tillery’s near-legendary work ethic, which is the first thing anybody brings up about him when talking about him as a player.
“He critiques himself about everything,” junior defensive back Danny Johnson said. “He said he needed to get faster; he said he needed to get more downhill. … I’ve seen him work on all of that since I’ve been here, and every year he got better and better.
“You can see why he’s getting better, because he put that work in during the offseason, during the season. Every morning before practice, he’s out there early working on something new.”
The record will also be a welcome relief.
People talk to Tillery about the record — and not just reporters with notebooks and cameras. Saturday will be a chance to put it behind him and focus on what is really important to him.
There will always be time to savor the history later.
“It’s definitely a great achievement, a great accomplishment, but at the moment there are other goals that supersede that one,” Tillery said. “For now, I’m happy that we’re close, happy that it’s almost over with. But for the moment, we’re currently focused on going 1-0 (this week).
“So after the season is over and we’ve done what we’ve done, we’ve won all the games we’ve won, I’ll be able to look back and say, ‘That was amazing. We did it; we did it!’ Have a party with the offensive line, invite them over to the house and all that. But for right now, we’re focused on going 1-0 this week.”
That’s the kind of talk that coach Dawson Odums loves to hear out of one of his team leaders, because it’s the exact mindset he’s trying to instill in his team.
When Tillery breaks the record, which at this point is a near certainty, Odums imagines Tillery will come to the sideline, and their interaction will go something like this: “Congratulations, well done. Get a blow; get ready to go back in.”
“I mean, we’re in a football game,” Odums said. “We’re not thinking about records in the football game; we’re thinking about the next play. All our focus is on the next play.
"Now, after the game? You can reflect back on this journey that’s taken place. Then you talk about the accomplishments and it’s rewarding; it’s satisfying that it’s finally over and you continue to move forward.”
It’s been quite a journey for Tillery, and one day he’ll likely have a lot of stories to tell about how great it was to chase history from his humble beginnings as a college player.
Until then, that story will have to be told by his friends and teammates.
“It’s just an amazing thing to see when you can watch a guy grow,” Howard said. “All of it is just beautiful."