Trio competing to be starting RB for Southern

Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONSouthern running back Darrius Coleman looks for running room against  New Mexico last season. During spring drills, Coleman is battling Terence Clayton and Lenary Tillery to be the starting running back.
Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONSouthern running back Darrius Coleman looks for running room against New Mexico last season. During spring drills, Coleman is battling Terence Clayton and Lenary Tillery to be the starting running back.

Igniting the Southern ground game with his play late last season, running back Sylvester Nzekwe had three 100-yard games in the team’s last four games, this after the Jaguars had gone the first seven games of 2012 without a 100-yard rusher.

Nonetheless, the Jaguars still finished last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in rushing offense, managing only 79.5 yards per outing.

Nzekwe and Jerry Joseph, who battled injuries during parts of their senior seasons, have moved on.

That leaves senior Darrius Coleman, junior Terence Clayton and redshirt freshman Lenard Tillery likely to share the workload in the backfield. Their mission: give the SU offense, led by Dray Joseph and the passing game, enough balance to keep defenses honest.

“We’re all competing to be the guy,” said Tillery, a former McKinley High standout, “but we know it’s not a one-back system. We know we’re all going to get playing time.”

Coleman is a bruising back whose smarts (he’s an architecture major) help him find running lanes. Clayton is a speedster who splits time as a sprinter on the Southern track team. Tillery is a bit of both backs mixed together who has earned a reputation as the group’s hardest worker.

The three are taking turns alongside Joseph, the reigning SWAC passing leader, this spring as Southern works to install its new zone-read option scheme.

“They all bring something to the table,”
running backs coach Lionel Joseph said.

The three backs working to revamp Southern’s rushing attack have differences beyond their running styles. All three took vastly
different routes to get here.

Coleman is a Seattle native who began his college career as an invited walk-on at Idaho State, then transferred to Southern and took a redshirt.

Juggling football with the academic responsibilities of an architecture major, Clayton finished as Southern’s second-leading rusher last year with 183 yards on 54 carries.

Clayton started out at Texas Southern, then spent two seasons at Dodge City Community College in Kansas before transferring to Southern.

Tillery enjoyed a standout career at McKinley but thought he may be done with football until Southern assistant Chad Germany talked him into walking on. He has fond memories of attending SU football games growing up.

“You never came for the games,” he admitted. “You come for the Human Jukebox.”

Tillery said the Southern band will always be a main attraction, but he hopes to help make Southern football a source of pride as well.

He has drawn praise from coaches and teammates with his work ethic and attention to detail.

“He’s battery-operated,” Coleman said. “He doesn’t stop.”

Coleman said Tillery and Clayton push him in practice to become a better player. He believes he does the same for them.

“We help each other with the plays and make sure everybody knows the plays,” Coleman said. “But when we get on the field, we compete. We battle.”

Last year, relying mostly on the arm of Dray Joseph and a talented receiving corps, SU averaged 23.8 points and 328.1 yards per game.

If the running game improves, how dangerous will the Jaguars be?

Clayton whistled.

Coleman had just one word: “Amazing.”

“Sky’s the limit,” Tillery said.