Always forward.

It is what Pop told Luke Cage in the popular Netflix Marvel series.

It’s also the philosophy that carried Southern running back Lenard Tillery from a walk-on to the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s career rushing leader and one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s best running backs.

The fifth-year senior from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, enters Saturday’s SWAC pivotal contest at Prairie View A&M with 4,257 career yards. Tillery’s 195-yard effort in Southern’s 41-33 over Alcorn State two weeks ago helped him supplant former Jackson State great Destry Wright as the conference’s all-time leader in rushing yards.

“One thing I always emphasize for myself is no matter what accomplishments you have, there’s always going to be more to do,” Tillery said. “I just try to keep moving forward and keep working toward the goal.”

Tillery joined Wright as the second SWAC football player to rush for more than 4,000 yards in their collegiate careers. Currently the SWAC’s leading rusher and FCS’s fourth-leading rusher, Tillery ran for 125 yards in the Jaguars 26-10 win over Texas Southern Saturday to become the first Southern back with three-straight 1,000-yard seasons. He is also 315 yards away from breaking Southern’s 67-year-old single-season rushing record. Odie Posey rushed for 1,399 yards in 1949.

However, this is not a typical story of football success or a local-boy-done-good. This is a story of preparation meeting opportunity.

“Nothing’s been given to him,” head coach Dawson Odums said. “He didn’t transfer in from a big school. He came here as a walk-on and got better every day because he came to work every day.”

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Growing up in Baton Rouge, Tillery has been around Southern his entire life. He prepped at McKinley Senior High, earning All-District honors for the Panthers as a senior in 2011.

His father told him to apply to Southern and other schools to make sure he was accepted to a college in the event a football scholarship did not come, Tillery said. Colleges showed some interest in him, but there was some uncertainty.

There was one constant in his recruiting process — former offensive coordinator Chad Germany. Tillery said Germany, who coached against Tillery while at Capitol High, kept tabs on him during his senior year. He was ready to commit to another college, but that school backed out on him.

“After that, I was like maybe college ball isn’t for me,” he said.

He pushed thoughts about the recruiting process out of his head and continued on with his senior year. However, he did not forget the school he had been around his entire life. He also did not forget the coach that maintained constant contact throughout the process.

Germany told him there were two senior backs on the roster, along with other guys fighting for playing time. Tillery said Germany told him he would have a shot to compete for playing time.

“The only guy that was consistent throughout the entire process and truthful throughout the entire process was coach Germany,” he said. “That’s when I decided to go with him. He didn’t try to sell me no big dreams or anything like that. He just told me how it was.”

Southern’s head coach at the time, Arizona Cardinals running backs coach Stump Mitchell, said Tillery came to Southern on an academic scholarship with the promise of getting a football scholarship in January of his freshman year. The coaching staff thought he could compete with those older backs as a true freshman, but he did not want him to get minimal playing time in 2012. The decision was made to redshirt him.

“We redshirted him, knowing he had the talent to take that program to new heights,” Mitchell said. “He competed in practice his first year every day. I didn’t think he was going to get enough playing time to risk him losing his redshirt.”

Tillery began competing for playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2013. He did not get a carry in Southern’s first two games of that season, but paid dividends for the Jaguars in the third game of that season.

He rushed for 75 yards and three scores on 17 carries as Southern outlasted Prairie View A&M 62-59 in double overtime. He finished that season with a team-best 784 rushing yards as a compliment to an offensive unit led by All-American quarterback Dray Joseph and All-American wide receiver Lee Doss. The 2013 Southern team capped the season with a SWAC championship.

“It was tons of fun playing with a guy like Dray Joseph,” Tillery said. “We had a lot of close games that year. It wasn’t really a warming-up period for me. We got right into that year.”

He got acclimated to the speed of college football that season, and trained to improve himself going into the 2014 season, a 2014 season where it looked like he would be first-string running back. However, things worked out differently for Tillery.

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Southern brought in a Football Bowl Subdivision transfer running backs for the 2014 season, looking to bolster the position. Tillery, the incumbent, now saw himself deep down the depth chart.

Tillery’s position coach, associate head coach Elvis Joseph, said the team did not have too much depth at that position going into the 2014 season. Tillery was not intimidated by the resumes of the transfers. He kept competing.

“We’re always looking to better the roster,” Joseph said. “He was looking forward to the challenge. He didn’t take the situation and go down in the dumps. He just kept working. He starting working even harder.”

That hard work prepared Tillery for an opportunity as Southern went on the road against Prairie View shorthanded. Joseph said Malcolm Crockett, a Pittsburgh transfer who won the starting job, was injured and could not play against PVAMU. Tillery got the lion’s share of the carries that day in Texas, rushing for 135 yards and a score in a 34-24 Jaguar win.

“One thing Coach Odums had stressed to me during that time period was just always be prepared for that opportunity,” Tillery said. “Coach Joseph used to tell me all the time to just wait your turn. When you get your turn, you better show them why you should be the No. 1.”

Tillery continued gaining ground, finishing the season with 100-yard games in four of Southern’s last five regular season games. He finished the season with 1,196 yards, second-best total in the SWAC. Southern won the Western Division for a second-straight year, bowing out to Alcorn State in the 2014 SWAC Championship Game. Despite the title game loss, Tillery established himself as the starter.

“Tillery went in the game and never sat back down,” Joseph said. “Tillery went in, and they could never replace him,” Joseph said. “He works hard through adversity.”

Tillery entered 2015 as the unquestioned starter, and he did not disappoint from an individual standpoint. He rushed for 100-plus yards in six games, and led the SWAC in rushing with 1,192 yards. He moved past former Southern All-American Steve Wofford as the school’s career rushing leader against Alabama A&M.

However, Southern finished 2015 with a 6-5 record. The up-and-down season for the Jaguars serves as the fuel for Tillery’s fire this season.

“I just stress with my career and in life to try to help others. It’s not always going to be about you,” Tillery said. “I just try to stay focused on the team goals.”

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During the offseason, Tillery said his father showed him a list of the conference’s career rushing leaders. It was the first time he thought about his place in SWAC history. His offensive line teammates constantly talked to him about the record, making comments regarding how many yards he needed to surpass Wright.

Tillery wasted little time approaching the record. He rushed for 100-plus yards in five out of six games before the Alcorn State game. He moved past Wright on a 33-yard scamper in the third quarter against the Braves. He currently averages 135.6 yards per game, second-best in FCS, and his 1,085 yards is fourth-best in the nation.

He plans to give the ball he broke the record with to his mother, whom Tillery said he is sure she has an idea where to put it. The numbers that matter to him now are the ones on the scoreboard. Southern (6-2, 6-0) is tied for first in the SWAC West with 21st-ranked Grambling State (6-1, 6-0) with Prairie View (6-3,6-1) lurking behind them.

“It’s going to come down to getting Ws,” Tillery said. “I’ve been having fun the entire season. Going out there and getting wins is much more important to me. I’d much rather have the championship ring than the record.”

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As he racked up yards, Tillery has also lent his time and voice to matters impacting his fellow students and the Baton Rouge community. He penned an open letter to a local blog speaking out against a proposed campus beautification project, citing other projects on the campus were more important to the campus community than the proposed project.

He speaks to youth groups, and was featured in a Bleacher Report story shortly after the Alton Sterling shooting this summer. Tillery was also spotted near protests at the site of the shooting, picking up trash left behind by protesters.

Joseph said Tillery’s desire to improve is not limited to the gridiron, but to himself as a person and to the community as well.

“He’s a hard-working young man, and he’s always looking to help others,” Joseph said. “He’s committed to greatness. He has a great work ethic about himself.”

Many people believe they can do great things, but Tillery said sometimes they are held back by their own thoughts. Whether on the field or off, a person has to either let their voice be heard or make a move to change things when an opportunity shows itself.

“If you know what you’re saying, then you shouldn’t have any fear speaking out,” Tillery said.

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To date, Tillery has 21 100-plus rushing games during his Southern career to date, and Southern is 18-3 when he rushes for over 100 yards. His career yardage at this point is roughly the driving distance from A.W. Mumford Stadium to the restaurants and hotels along Harding Boulevard near Baton Rouge Metro Airport.

However, it is not the yards that stick with his coaches.

Joseph said Tillery’s drive is a key reason why he became the player he is. He didn’t act like a walk-on when he came to Southern. He came early and stayed late. He wanted to watch film. He wanted to get better.

“There have been games when Tillery had a good game, but he was upset because he didn’t have enough big runs and left a lot of yards on the field,” Joseph said. “He understands his accomplishments, but he is always looking for how he can improve his weaknesses.”

It is those qualities that Joseph, who played in the NFL and Canadian Football League, said will get Tillery a shot at the next level. Tillery understands the game from a mental aspect, and Joseph added Tillery has done a good job of getting his body in shape to take on the pounding of the NFL level.

“The only thing Tillery has to do now is just stay healthy, go out there and play like he’s doing right now and it should take care of itself,” Joseph said. “He should get an opportunity to play on Sundays.”

Mitchell compared Tillery’s running style to one of his backs, former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson. Mitchell said they are similar because of their patience before making a decision and their ability to break tackles.

Tillery’s chances at the NFL are excellent, Mitchell said. Film against bigger schools shows Tillery has the ability to play, along with his running style. Playing in the SWAC is not going to hurt his chances.

“Now I think he makes people miss a whole lot more. I think he’ll excel in the NFL because a lot of teams run zone-type plays,” Mitchell said. “You take a look at his body of work against big-time schools that they’ve played, and it’s great. Hell, he could play for us, and we have some guys that are pretty doggone good.”

Odums said Tillery is the definition of hard work. He is at the front when running sprints, he asks questions and is attentive during meetings. He came to Southern seeking an opportunity, and Tillery embraced the challenges during his career.

The program offers walk-ons opportunities, and Odums said Tillery’s career is an example of a player taking advantage of the chances. It is the coaching staff’s duty to provide opportunities, and it is up to the player to make the best of those chances.

“Once he got his opportunity, he didn’t look back,” Odums said. “When he was on scout team his first year, he ran as if he was the starter. He made the best of his opportunity, and five years later he’s the all-time rushing leader in the SWAC. Guess you’d be rich if you’d bet that in Las Vegas.”

Tillery reflected on his career, saying it was the result of a lot of choices and opportunities falling in place almost perfectly for him to get to this point. He tries not to get caught up in the congratulations and attaboys, but instead places his focus on winning a second SWAC title.

That focus did wane for a second, once he looked at the career rushing list. He passed Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton on the list during the Alabama A&M game, and moved past Grambling career rushing leader Frank Warren during the Jaguars’ homecoming win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

The final two players, Wright and former Jackson State star Lewis Tillman, were passed during the Alcorn State game.

“It’s funny because the top two guys were actually Jackson State running backs, and a lot of people were laughing at that,” Tillery said while laughing. “Whenever you get to represent your institution in a way like that is a blessing. I love to see Southern’s name at the top of that list for years to come … just to let guys know Southern runs the SWAC.”



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