Navy wide receiver Jamir Tillman has a knack for making a big play when the Midshipmen need one the most. The goal this season is finding more ways to get him the ball.
Last year against archrival Army, Tillman caught a pair of crucial passes. Navy coach Navy Ken Niumatalolo wants to develop a more dynamic game, and Tillman will be vital to that effort.
"The receiver role hasn't really changed," said Tillman, who is listed at 6-feet-4, 206 pounds. "When the ball is thrown, we catch it. We want to be the hardest-working position out on the field. Go out there and catch the ball. Block when we are supposed to. Hopefully, make things happen."
Tillman started all 13 games as a sophomore last season and led the team with 20 catches for 386 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball twice for 27 yards. His success has been the product of hard work -- Tillman was named the 2014 winner of the Admiral Mack Award, given to the player who has improved the most during spring practice.
Niumatalolo knows good things happen when the ball is in Tillman's hands. He expects Tillman to continue growing as a player and be a main target for senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
"When the ball is around that guy, he finds a way to come down with it," Niumatalolo said of Tillman. "He's definitely a guy we feel like we have to utilize more."
The offense still centers on Reynolds, whose 64 rushing touchdowns are already a program record and the most by any quarterback in the NCAA. This season, Reynolds could break the overall record of 77 rushing touchdowns held by former Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball.
Tillman, however, will likely play a pivotal role as the Midshipmen try to incorporate more passing into the game plan to complement the ground attack. Last season, Reynolds threw for 843 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in 11 games.
Tillman said personal goals take a backseat to winning. Navy is playing its first year as a member of the American Athletic Conference after spending the previous 134 seasons as an independent.
Prior to this season, Tillman was named to the preseason All-AAC fourth team by college sportswriter Phil Steele. Tillman has a chance to become the Midshipmen's most productive receiver in the triple-option era, which has been defined by a prolific running attack that wears opponents down.
"I want to be the go-to guy," Tillman said. "I think everybody wants to be the go-to guy. But we have to know our roles. If it's any other guy, I'll be happy for them, just like I hope they will be happy for me."
One of Tillman's best attributes is his ability to seize the moment. The Midshipmen were trailing Army last season in the second quarter when Reynolds found Tillman for a 9-yard touchdown that tied the game, 7-7, with 18 seconds left. Navy went on to win the game, 17-10, extending its winning streak against Army to 13 games.
"It's a testament to our hard work," Tillman said of the Army game. "Anybody can be put in that type of situation. I am sure they would have made the play. I was just blessed enough to be in that position at that time."
Tillman was a multi-sport standout at Bishop Gorman High School in Nevada. His father, Cedric, played at Alcorn State and in the NFL for the Denver Broncos (1992-96) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1997). Tillman was named All-State in football his senior year, during which he caught 58 passes for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was rated the No. 16 player in the state of Nevada. Tillman also excelled in the classroom and was a member of the National Honor Society. His academic and athletic prowess also earned him offers from Tulsa, Georgetown and several Ivy League schools.
He decided Navy was the best option. As a freshman, Tillman appeared in seven games and caught two passes for 12 yards. He was part of a unit that ranked No. 1 nationally in fewest turnovers lost (10), No. 6 in passing yards per completion (15.09) and No. 6 in third-down conversion rate (51.1).
That led to his breakout sophomore season, during which he emerged as one of the Midshipmen's most dangerous targets. In addition to his big game against Army, Tillman also had four catches for 63 yards against Air Force, including a 26-yard catch, and caught five passes for a career-high 99 yards against Rutgers.
He thinks this year's receiving group has the talent to help Navy add more wrinkles to its passing game.
"We all work hard," Tillman said.