Travares Tillman continues coaching climb as mentor for Michigan State cornerbacks

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When Mel Tucker left Colorado to become the head coach at Michigan State, it wasn’t long before Travares Tillman was packing his bags and following Tucker to East Lansing.

After all, ever since Tillman jumped into the world of college coaching, he’d done so under the tutelage of Tucker, who was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Georgia when Tillman arrived as a graduate assistant after coaching four years at his alma mater, Calvary Day School in Savannah, Georgia.

Travares Tillman

Tillman spent two seasons on Kirby Smart’s staff working with the defensive backs and was a defensive quality control coach in 2018. And when Tucker was named the head coach at Colorado in 2019, he hired Tillman to coach defensive backs.

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So, the move to Michigan State made sense.

“Coach Tucker is my mentor,” Tillman said.

After spending the 2020 season as a senior defensive assistant with the Spartans, Tillman last week was named cornerbacks coach after Mike Tressel left to become the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Harlon Barnett will oversee the entire secondary while focusing on the safeties, a move that will be an easy one for Tillman, who experienced a similar setup with Tucker at Georgia.

“He was the defensive coordinator and I was his grad assistant,” Tillman said. “We did it like he wants to do it now. He would have all the DB’s in the room together, corners and safeties. But once we got on the practice field, he took the corners and I took the safeties. So it was it was kind of like a natural transition. I'd already been coaching those guys anyway, so it was pretty seamless.”

That sort of transition will be expected again as Tillman spent all of last season breaking down opposing passing attacks while taking in everything Barnett was instilling in his defensive backs.

“I was in Coach Barnett's meetings all the time, so I heard him teach and I was in there learning the defense, as he was teaching, like I was one of the guys,” Tillman said. “He’s a great coach. He's a great teacher and I learned a lot. I’ve put some of his tools that he uses into my tool belt.

“So I'm grateful for continuing that relationship with Coach Barnett and I think everything's going to work out fine. I think we're going to have a pretty good back end this year.”

Coaching at this level always has been something Tillman has been working toward. The former All-ACC defensive back at Georgia Tech spent seven seasons in the NFL, but as his career began winding down during his final three seasons in Miami playing for the Dolphins, he started to think about how he could stay around the game.

“I knew my time was about to be up and I still wanted to be around the game,” Tillman said. “I thought I had a lot that I could give to a kid. I have a lot of experience on and off the field. I can relate to those kids. That was kind of like a natural transition and I truly wanted to do that track from high school, almost like I wanted to earn my stripes.”

Tillman was at Calvary School for four years, coaching defensive backs while also coaching the track team. From there, he went to Georgia and Colorado before ending up at Michigan State.

Now, he’s part of the staff of 10 full-time coaches, signing a two-year contract last week that will pay him $250,000, according to documents obtained by The News. Based on the contracts signed last year by the rest of the staff, Tillman will be the second-lowest paid assistant, just ahead of running back coach William Peagler, who is making $200,000.

It’s a job that Tillman wasn’t just handed, however, when Tressel left. He has a history with Tucker, but defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton needed to be on board, too.

“I went through a formal interview process, because Coach Hazelton … he needs to know, too,” Tillman said. “So I went through the normal channels of interviewing and I got to show (Hazelton) how I teach and my coaching philosophy and all that stuff. So it was great, and I'm glad I did it because I think now he knows he has the right guy on staff.”

Tillman will have some work to do when Michigan State gets back on the field in the spring. The Spartans lost All-Big Ten cornerback Shakur Brown to the NFL Draft while four more corners — Julian Barnett, Davion Williams, Chris Jackson and Dominique Long — all entered the transfer portal.

There’s still some talent, though, as Kalon Gervin will be a junior and Angelo Grose is coming off a promising freshman season.

Whoever ends up getting on the field, Tillman believes he’ll have a good connection with his players, who appreciate Tillman has been where they are now and where they want to be.

“It helps immensely because I've been where they're trying to go,” Tillman said. “Their ears tend to perk up when I'm talking because they know I've been through the struggle that they they're going through right now. I've been through all that hard work, and all the late meetings. I've done all that. I've sweated, I've bled, I've done everything they've done. So, I tell them right off the bat, ‘I’ve really got no sympathy for you, because I've done what you're doing.’

“They kind of respect that and they look to me for guidance, and I'm there to give it to them.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau