When Marcus Tillman signed with the Ole Miss Rebels last February, there was plenty of reason to believe the Rebs had inked a potentially great player.
His resume' was significant - Parade All-American, SuperPrep All-Dixie, rated No. 8 player in the Southeast by Tom Lemming, and so on.
But nobody, including Tillman, expected him to make the impact on the team that he did in his rookie campaign.
"I don't know what we would have done without him," said Rebel Coach Ed Orgeron. "Marcus came in here and went to work. He never slowed down and he never said a word when we moved him from his natural position of DE to DT after we had some injuries inside.
"What he did as a freshman was amazing. He not only broke into the starting lineup, he adjusted midstream to a new position and started there too."
Marcus did not set the woods on fire statistically, registering 22 tackles with five tackles for losses and two QB sacks, but everyone understood his value to the team.
"It's not like we just stuck him in there. He earned the playing time and he performed," said Orgeron.
Tillman, a man of few words, just took it all in stride, even though he didn't expect as much PT as he got.
"I didn't expect to play as much as I did, but I was happy to once it all developed. There were times I was overwhelmed with all the school work and all the film work I had to do for football, but I survived and the coaches were patient about my development," Tillman stated.
Marcus not only had to learn both DE positions through the course of the year, he then had to learn defensive tackle.
"I got moved from defensive end to LEO (rush end) and then inside. I had to learn all my gaps at all those positions, where to be on all the different blitzes and so on," he explained. "Playing one position throughout your first year is hard, three is very hard, but there were some similarities to the three positions, so I eventually got it down.
"The good thing is that I had the same coach - Ryan Nielsen - for all three positions because they are all on the DL. Some schools have a DT coach and a DE coach. Coach Nielsen does it all here and made it easy to understand."
Got-it-down is an understatement. Recently, Marcus was named to Scout.com's 2nd Team Freshman All-American team.
Marcus prefers LEO to the inside or DE, but he really doesn't care as long as he's playing.
"Number one is to be on the field, but if I had a choice and the decision was mine, I prefer LEO to the other two. I like having opportunities to rush the passer. That's fun," he said.
But Marcus knows his physical growth is going to be the key.
"I don't know what my body is going to do. In high school, I couldn't gain much weight. I stayed at 230 for a long time. Then I got to 245 right before my senior season and now I am 255. It seems like I grow in spurts instead of gradually right now," Tillman stated. "I may end up as a 260-pound rush end or I may end up weighing 280 or 290. I don't know that yet. I just want to get stronger, make sure I'm putting on lean muscle and see where that takes me.
"I also have to work on my techniques. I was good at being in the right gaps, but I need work on getting off blockers quicker. Locking out my arms and getting off them is what it's all about."
Marcus believes the future is bright, individually and as a defense.
"It's going to help that a lot of young players got good playing time this year. We will be a lot better next year. We know what to expect. I know I will be better, just from the experience," he closed. "Your first time around the league, you have a lot of adjusting to do.
"You have to get used to the noise, the speed of the game, the different techniques, all your assignments and the schedule, which is very time-consuming. When the season rolls around next year guys like me and Greg Hardy and Jonathan Cornell and Cassius Vaughn and Jamal Harvey and several more, will know what to do better."
Marcus Tillman had an excellent year as a freshman on the Ole Miss defense, but his best football is in front of him.
He's out to prove that in the coming months.
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