Marcus Tillman was one of the more pleasant "surprises" of the 2006 season.
It's not a common thing for defensive linemen to emerge as stalwarts in their true freshman season, but Tillman - a 6-5, 270-pounder from Meadville - did.
Despite being moved from his natural position of defensive end to defensive tackle midway through the season due to injuries to other players, Marcus managed 22 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and a pair of QB sacks in the '06 season.
"I will do whatever the coaches ask me to do for the team," said the soft-spoken Tillman, "but I think I would have had more tackles if I could have stayed outside. I was a little undersized for inside, but I did my best for the team."
In spring, he was moved back to his beloved DE slot and stated a case for the coaches to leave him there the rest of his career.
"His upside is huge," said DL Coach Ryan Nielsen post-spring. "Marcus had an outstanding spring and has become a better pass rusher. At times, he was dominant in spring practice. He's the prototype of what we are looking in a DE at Ole Miss in our defense."
Prototype physically, for sure, and mentally as well, apparently.
"It's all about working hard and getting yourself prepared," said Marcus. "I get up early every morning and work out then go to class and study. You have to learn to manage your time to get enough sleep, but it's just part of the process.
"I found out early on that the harder you work the better you become."
Marcus said the Ole Miss strength coaches have the players working speed and conditioning more this summer and have made it as fun as those demands can be.
"The strength coaches always have a competition set up in our speed drills and races. It's about competing and getting better and having some fun in the process," he explained. "The program is built on competing in everything you do, including offseason workouts. I like that. I like to compete."
For now (June), the Rebs are working out three days a week. In July, the intensity level jumps up to five times a week as the season inches closer.
But Marcus has already been through that once - last summer - and knows what to expect.
"I was nervous last year at this time, not knowing what to expect, but as I got into it, I realized I didn't need to be nervous. You just get it in your mind to get after it in everything you do and things turn out great," he noted. "My first year was a lot different than high school, but once you get adjusted and understand what you have to do to succeed, it's fine."
Tillman said he feels like a veteran now, even though he's just now entering his second year.
"I am bigger, stronger and faster and now I understand what I am doing on the field at defensive end," said Marcus. "I can read blocks better now and started making more plays in spring. I'm comfortable now and don't think I'm going to get a lot of surprises from here on out."
Tillman is excited about the prospects of the defensive line and defense for 2007.
"We are kind of young, but we are hungry and are starting to come together. I could sense that at the end of spring, even with a couple of our veterans out with injuries and even with losing several good players on the back end of our defense," he added. "We have more competition within the team now and we everyone is working hard to win. That's all you can ask."
Marcus Tillman left spring training with a tag of "rising star" stamped on his chest. Some feel by the end of his career there may be a giant "S" there.
"Marcus has the attitude and ability to be a great player. I think he'll get there," Nielsen said.
Marcus Tillman update -
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