On Saturday, Tillman will be instrumental in Tech’s efforts to claim a most meaningful win and quiet the chorus of doubters. The Jackets will face No. 20 Ole Miss, targeting their second win over a ranked team in Collins’ tenure. Tech rates a 16.5-point underdog against its foe from the SEC, an opponent fortified by an up-tempo offense that will require Tillman’s defensive backs to play at their peak.
“Really good skill players,” Tillman said of the Rebels. “They have big guys on the outside, quick guys on the inside. It’s going to be a challenge for us to contain those guys. And on top of that, how fast they go. You’ve got to get lined up, and communication is going to be big, to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Saturday’s setting – coaching a power-conference team against a ranked opponent on national television – might seem the essence of what drew Tillman into coaching after his seven-year NFL career ended in 2007. A Tech grad (business) with a recognizable name, Tillman surely had an assortment of options. But coaching called out to him.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t have a whole lot of coaches that looked like me, that have gone through the same experiences that I have,” Tillman, a Black man, said in February of his motivation to go into coaching. “A lot of the makeup of this team and most teams are guys that look like me, so it was important for me to come back and share my experiences and the things that I’ve been through.”
Rather than rely on his name and NFL experience, Tillman started at the bottom rung of the ladder, serving as an assistant coach at Calvary Day School in Savannah beginning in 2012. He joined the staff of coach Mark Stroud, who had coached Tillman at Toombs County High in South Georgia.
“I truly wanted to do that track from high school,” Tillman told Michigan State media in 2021. “Almost like I wanted to earn my stripes. Luckily, I was able to do that.”
Stroud remembers getting a call from Tillman at the end of the 2011 season, with his former player telling him he wanted to get into coaching. Stroud encouraged him and said that he would reach out to his connections in Atlanta, where Tillman and his family were living. But Tillman wanted to come to Savannah to learn from Stroud.
Tillman was hired – the Tech degree helped, Stroud said – and soon he was coaching defensive backs and performing the humble tasks that come with being a high-school coach. The guy who’d played 74 games in the NFL was making sure the locker room was clean, setting up water stations before games, collecting headsets after them while dispensing wisdom and techniques collected from playing the game at the highest level.
“I’d tell (players), ‘Y’all have any idea how well y’all are getting coached?’” Stroud said. “He was just doing a great job with those kids. And he was a great role model for our kids, great mentor for our kids.”
After four years, in 2016, he moved up to the college level, as a graduate assistant at Georgia on the staff of coach Kirby Smart. Not only was he in a job in his late 30′s often filled by recent graduates, but he was a Jacket garbed in red.
“It was one of those deals like, ‘What are you doing? What is happening here?’” Tech legend and teammate Joe Hamilton said of the ribbing he gave Tillman. “He kind of laughed it off and said it was kind of a tough decision, but that’s how bad he wanted to get into coaching, that’s how bad he wanted to get his foot in the door.”
Tillman’s work impressed then-UGA defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Tillman became a defensive quality-control assistant and then left with Tucker for Colorado when he took the head coach job there in December 2018. He coached defensive backs, and then accompanied Tucker to Michigan State a year later, where he was first the senior defensive assistant before he was promoted to coach cornerbacks in 2021. Collins hired him in December 2021 after he dismissed cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich and safeties coach Nathan Burton, hoping to clean up the trust and communication issues that had developed.
He is fulfilling the promise that Hamilton saw in him when they were teammates and adversaries on the Tech practice field. Hamilton said he noticed qualities like attention to detail, unselfishness, an ability to respond to adversity and a commitment to giving only his best.
When Hamilton returns to Tech – he now is the radio analyst – he sees Tillman running drills on the same field where they once deposited their effort and sweat.
“It gives me chills and a smile on my face,” Hamilton said.
On the practice field, seriousness and accountability are paramount.
“He’s real hard on us,” cornerback K.J. Wallace said. “He’s kind of like, I wouldn’t say a father figure, but like an O.G. kind of figure (short for original gangster, a term denoting high respect) to the whole group. He’s real chill when he needs to be, real personable when he needs to be, but when he’s coaching, he’s hard. I think a lot of us benefit from that.”
Tillman doesn’t shy from the description.
“Once you step between those lines, you have to come with an attitude that you’re going to go out and work and have a focus and a commitment to the game that you need to win on Saturdays,” he said.
He is not one, it sounds like, for turnover chains or any other similar sort of sideline preening.
“I tell my guys all the time, ‘Celebrate that thing for two seconds, and it’s on to the next one,’” Tillman said. “‘Act like you’ve done it before.’”
The early results have been a mix. Clemson was 23-for-38 passing for 259 yards with two touchdowns, although the Jackets’ coverage was often textbook. Against Western Carolina, two Catamounts quarterbacks completed 24 of 35 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns, but Tech defenders nabbed three interceptions, as many as the team had all last season.
“I think we’ve played well in spots,” Tillman said. “I don’t think we’ve put it all together yet.”
Slowing Ole Miss on Saturday will require Tillman’s unit to reach a higher standard than it has reached to this point.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but I think the guys, they’ve come out prepared this week, and I think they’re ready for it,” Tillman said.
For this former Tech captain, it would be a memory he’d keep a long time.