As the Southern football team filed onto the practice fields Thursday to begin its first workout of fall camp, redshirt freshman running back Lenard Tillery stood in the end zone holding a white helmet and wearing a camouflage bandana over his shaven head.
Rather than lament the suffocating heat or the avalanche of practices to come, Tillery fixed his bright eyes on the blur of white and blue jerseys and smiled like a schoolboy headed to recess.
Tillery had spent the past two months working 12-hour shifts in the warehouse of the Dow Chemical plant, building and packing boxes for $11 an hour so he could reimburse his parents for last year’s tuition.
No wonder he was smiling.
“This is fun,” Tillery said, comparing football to his summer job. “I couldn’t wait to get back out here.”
Ninety-four teammates joined in on the fun Thursday as Southern took its first steps toward a season that begins with an Aug. 30 matchup with Houston in Reliant Stadium. If he continues to show the kind of potential coaches saw during spring practice, the starting running back for Southern in that season opener will be a player who has yet to play a college snap.
Tillery spent 2012 as a redshirt, watching from afar as the Jaguars averaged 79.5 rushing yards to rank last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
In fact, the former McKinley standout was still just a walk-on. But he won over his coaches and teammates with a work ethic that made him one of the team’s offseason stars, then continued to turn heads during his first spring practice.
Tillery, 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds, carried 18 times for 111 yards in Southern’s spring game. When spring practice ended, Dawson Odums met with Tillery in the head coach’s office and told him he had earned a scholarship.
The decision seemed a mere formality, but Tillery said he was so excited he almost cried.
“I have to work on keeping it and make him proud,” Tillery said. “Show him he made a good investment.”
Odums has little doubt he will.
“When you say you want a poster child for your program and you want to say this is the kind of student-athlete we want, I can put his name there,” Odums said. “He’s a model student-athlete.”
Tillery grew up attending Southern games and remembers tossing the football with friends as the Jaguars played. But he may not have made it across town from McKinley if not for SU assistant Chad Germany, whose connection with the running back stretched to his days as the coach at Capitol.
Germany told Tillery he would have an opportunity to someday star in Southern’s backfield, but that he would have to start as a walk-on and work his way up.
Tillery’s parents had a similar message when it came to tuition. Whatever the McKinley honor student’s partial academic scholarship did not cover, they would foot the bill on an IOU basis.
Tillery said he made enough money working those 12-hour shifts this summer to pay his parents back in full.
“I decided to knock it all out this summer,” he said. “Be worry-free.”
With the summer job out of the way, Tillery can focus his attention on two endeavors that will need plenty.
One is keeping on track to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering. The other is helping Southern’s running game get off the ground.
Tillery spent the first day of fall camp lining up next to star quarterback Dray Joseph and taking snaps with the first-team offense. But he knows he must push forward.
Senior running back Darrius Coleman appears to be Tillery’s foremost competition. Newcomers like Kylum Favorite and Deaquame Varra could also work their way into the mix.
“You’re at the top of the depth chart,” Tillery said running backs coach Elvis Joseph told him. “But nothing’s written in concrete.”
Securing a starting job certainly won’t be easy.
But given the summer he left behind, Tillery is sure to have a good time trying.