(This is the 15th in a series of preseason stories on new high school football coaches, or veteran coaches at a different school, and top players in the Chattanooga area)
The numbers don’t lie.
East Ridge quarterback JoJo Tillery can be a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Do they make him run? Or do they want him throw the football?
Pick your poison, fellas.
Tillery had 2,255 yards of total offense in 2013 while leading the Pioneers to the Class 4A state playoffs where they lost to District 6-AA rival Hixson, 19-0, in the first round.
Tillery rushed for 1,085 yards and 10 touchdowns. He passed for 1,170 yards and 10 touchdowns.
See the oppositions' problem?
“I would rather run the football,” said Tillery, a three-year starter at quarterback and four-year starter in the Pioneers’ secondary. “I do like throwing the deep bomb.”
Like the one last week against Grace Baptist in the preseason jamboree at Finley Stadium.
Tillery, who set up East Ridge’s touchdown in a 7-0 win with a 60-yard scamper to the Grace 1 where he zipped untouched into the end zone on the next play, unleashed a long pass to a teammate running wide open down the right sideline behind Grace defenders.
However, the ball was barely overthrown.
“I would like to have that one back,” Tillery said after the 20-minute quarter ended. “I needed to take a bit more time and put it out there a little higher for the receiver. I think that one would have been another touchdown.”
Tillery, who is being recruited by Maryville College, Austin Peay, Wofford, Memphis, UT-Martin, Tusculum, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Tennessee-Chattanooga – primarily as a safety, connects with his receivers more often than not.
One miss won’t keep Tillery or Pioneers coach Tracy Malone from maintaining their offensive attack mode.
“We expect some big plays from JoJo this year and he’ll definitely be the guy that can keep the chains moving for us,” said Malone. “He’s definitely the best quarterback I’ve ever coached. He can run and throw and it has been good to have him. I don’t look forward to him graduating.”
That will happen soon enough, but Malone is going to utilize Tillery’s talents at every turn this season, starting Friday night when the Pioneers travel to Walker Valley for their opener. The Mustangs won last year’s opener, 21-3.
East Ridge won two of its last three regular-season games to reach the playoffs.
Tillery, who started in the secondary as a freshman, got his first start as a quarterback in the second game of his sophomore season. East Ridge lost to Walker Valley, Boyd-Buchanan, Red Bank, Tyner, Ooltewah and East Hamilton in a brutal six-game stretch.
In those games, East Ridge was outscored 188-23. The Pioneers were more competitive over the final four games of the season and beat Howard, Central and Brained while losing to Hixson. In that stretch, the Pioneers outscored their foes 96-60.
Tillery was getting the hang of Malone’s offense.
So, why didn’t Tillery start against Walker Valley in that season’s opener.
“I had gotten the job and inherited a senior quarterback,” Malone said. “JoJo started at receiver. We moved him to quarterback in the second game and he’s started every game since. I thought JoJo gave us a better chance to be offense we wanted to be. And I knew we’d have him for three years and that’s why I made that move.”
Malone wasn’t overly concerned about the rugged five rugged games that would greet Tillery.
“I wanted him to grow up under fire,” Malone said. “We knew that first year we weren’t going to be very good. We didn’t inherit a lot of people and it was a situation that we decided to go ahead and put him in there and baptize him under fire.”
Tillery survived, but it wasn’t easy.
In fact, it was downright rough at times.
“He and I didn’t do a very good job with each other,” Malone said. “I didn’t do a very good job knowing which buttons to push with him. He didn’t do a very good job handling tough coaching. Now it’s different. Our relationship is so much better and he’s like another coach on the field.”
With valuable experience on his side, Tillery is being asked to do more this season than ever before.
How much more can Tillery handle at this stage of his high school career?
“Tons,” Malone said. “Everything in the run game starts with his read. There are lots of three- and four-man concepts in the passing game. He’s handling a pretty complex offense. We don’t want to run stuff our backups can’t run and they can handle the things JoJo is doing, but he’s just got that little extra something that when you see it you know what a great player he can be.
“His improvement from two years ago has been unbelievable. He’s just a different kid. You’re talking about 20-plus football games and thousands of reps. JoJo is much more comfortable with the offensive stuff.”
As good as Tillery is on offense, his future apparently lies with his defensive skills that have been on display for three years.
In 2013, Tillery was credited with 49 tackles.
He may not get that many this year and that’s OK. Tillery is likely to see him time on defense limited by the value he brings to the offense.
“We know he’ll play over there some,” Malone said. “Right now the plan is when teams cross the 50 we’ll try and pop him in there. He’s our best all-around football player and we’re trying to keep him healthy.”
Tillery has a few ideas of what he’d like to accomplish in his last go-around with the Pioneers’ football program.
One, offensively he wants to have his best season.
Two, defensively he wants to be the same hard-hitting safety he’s always been.
Three, he wants to see East Ridge host its first TSSAA playoff game.
Four, it would be nice if the Pioneers end their nine-game postseason losing streak. They haven’t gotten past the second round since reaching the semifinals in 1970 and the school’s last playoff win was a 28-17 win over Knoxville Halls. A week later East Ridge lost to Rhea County, 35-34.
“I set goals, the team sets goals,” Tillery said. “But at the end of the day if we don’t win a bunch of games those things don’t matter much.”
Friday: Notre Dame’s Kareem Orr
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)