PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Southern redshirt freshman running back Lenard Tillery took advantage of a Golden Lions opportunity on Saturday.
Tillery hadn’t rushed for enough yards this season to start any game, he wasn’t burdened by overconfidence — even if the opponent was Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which has surrendered an average of 335.8 rushing yards a game, last among the Football Championship Subdivision’s 122 teams.
But Tillery’s 26-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter allowed a cool, confident tenacity to take front seat. By the end of Southern’s 29-21 victory over UAPB at Golden Lion Stadium, Tillery amassed a career-high 136 yards on 32 carries. He also caught three passes for 29 yards.
“I know that any given day in the SWAC, you can lose,” Tillery said. “Anybody’s a good opponent. This was a pretty good game for me. The O-line did a very good job of blocking. I missed a whole lot of holes. I’ve just got to go to practice, look at the films and improve for next week.”
No one questioned Tillery’s significance in Southern’s victory.
“Of course it helps (when you have a successful running game),” senior quarterback Dray Joseph said. “It relieves the pressure. They just can’t come out and blitz when we give them multiple looks. It’s a great deal for us to come and run.”
“I think he’s one of the better backs,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “He missed a couple of early games, and I think I said I thought we’d see why we thought so highly of this young man. He has great character, he’s a great student, and I think he’s going to be a great football player before he leaves here.”
Tillery’s first season started at a standstill thanks to a lower left leg injury that forced him to miss the first two games. Over the next four, Tillery, out of McKinley High, rushed for a total of 262 yards and five touchdowns, with highs of 75 and three against Prairie View A&M on Sept. 14, before his breakout against UAPB.
In addition to Tillery’s running, Joseph sounded pleased with Tillery’s pass-catching ability, but Tillery discounted any compliments in that regard.
“Anybody can catch Dray Joseph’s passes,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is put your hands up.”
UAPB coach Monte Coleman saw the film and understood Tillery had talent. He sounded impressed on Saturday.
“He’s a very good back, absolutely,” Coleman said. “They hadn’t been running the ball very much, but we knew coming in over the last few weeks we’ve had a difficult time against the run, so we knew they would run the ball more. And then that first run he had, I don’t remember how long, when he broke off 20-something yards for a touchdown, he showed he had ability. The thing is, we knew he had ability, but we’ve just had trouble stopping the run.”
And Tillery and Odums gave credit to the SU offensive line featuring senior center Aaron Hall, sophomore guards Reginald Redding and Anthony Mosley and junior tackles Zach Brown and Dwayne Houston.
“Our offensive line blocked today,” Odoms said. “And they blocked when we had to have them. Our ultimate goal was to get off the field with a win, and think our lineman did a great job with the running game.”