Going from big man on campus as a high school senior to a mere freshman in college can be a humbling experience. It’s a transition that some student-athletes frankly fail to make.
For former Marmion football standout T.J. Lally, going from first-team all-state and the 2010 Kane County Chronicle Football Player of the Year to a redshirt freshman at South Dakota State was not an easy process.
“It’s definitely different because you go from playing all the time in high school – both ways – and you come here and you’re just a lowly scout team player,” Lally said.
But Lally embraced the opportunity to contribute to the Jackrabbits in any way he could. He twice earned scout player of the week honors in his redshirt freshman season, once on defense and once on offense.
South Dakota State contacted Lally early in the recruiting process, considering the St. Charles product for a running back spot. After all, Lally rushed for 1,389 yards as a senior at Marmion, averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
But then, “We kind of lost contact,” Lally said. “I didn’t talk to them [again] until one of their coaches came to our state championship game.”
But after watching Lally make 18 tackles and force a fumble in that game, the Jackrabbits decided Lally just might be a better linebacker. Lally paid a visit to the Brookings, S.D., campus and liked what he saw and heard.
“It was just one of the things I got a good vibe from it,” he said. “The people is the main thing. I think that’s what makes any place special.”
Lally, who had a scholarship offer in hand from Eastern Michigan, got the impression the people at South Dakota State were dealing honestly with him, while some of the other recruiters seemed to be engaging in hyperbole.
With Lally watching from the sidelines, the Jackrabbits went 5-6 last season, their first losing campaign in nearly a decade. Lally said he “felt sick” not being able to play, but doesn’t regret the decision to a redshirt.
“I’m glad I did it just to get the extra experience,” he said.
An extensive off season conditioning program followed.
“That was a real wake-up call,” said Lally, now six feet and 225 pounds, noting that he was running and lifting multiple days a week. “That was a big change. It was real hard, but once I got used to it … I wouldn’t call it fun, but it was gratifying.”
Between playing on the scout squad and all that working out, Lally felt confident stepping onto the field this fall for the first game of his collegiate career at Kansas. He had five solo tackles and assisted on two others in a 31-17 loss to the Jayhawks.
“I was pretty happy with it,” Lally said. “I wish we would have won.”
South Dakota State hasn’t lost a game since, defeating Southeastern Louisiana, UC Davis, Indiana State and Missouri State in succession. In the 12-8 victory over UC Davis, Lally had a breakout game, racking up 10 solo tackles, four sacks, and a fumble recovery. His performance earned him Newcomer of the Week honors in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The hot start by the Jackrabbits has them tied for first with Illinois State in the MVC and ranked 23rd in one NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll. On Wednesday, Lally was one of 16 players named to the initial watch list by The Sports Network for the Jerry Rice Award, given annually to the top freshman in the FCS.
“Obviously, we have high hopes,” Lally said. “Our coaches and players are really committed to taking just one game at a time.”
That next game won’t come until Oct. 13 against Western Illinois.
“None of the older guys have ever had a bye week in the middle of the season,” Lally said. “It’s kind of a new thing for everyone.”
With three days off over the weekend [Monday falls on a South Dakota state holiday], Lally said players will have a chance to visit family or just relax.
“They have a lot of disc golf courses up here, which is a lot of fun, so we do that a lot,” he said. “I haven’t hunted yet, but that’s really big here, too.” Lally is majoring in economics.
“It’s going good,“ he said. “Math isn’t my favorite subject, but I can deal with it. I think it’s a good major because it’s pretty broad. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do.”
Who knows? If he keeps playing well, a pro football career might be in the offing. Two dozen South Dakota State players have reached the NFL, including Hall of Fame center Jim Langer (Dolphins, Vikings) and more recently, former Packers and Rams guard Adam Timmerman.
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes a weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To submit information about local athletes participating in college, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.