Jerry Tillery Emerging As Building Block In Notre Dame’s Interior
Notre Dame’s defensive line in last Saturday night’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State had the same review from head coach Brian Kelly as it had the first two weeks: A mixed bag. One figure played the best game of his career, but the collective unit didn’t quite mesh to complement him overall.
In the first two weeks, junior nose guard Daniel Cage’s play was heralded by Kelly as his best at Notre Dame. That’s why through three games his snap count has been a little higher (106, or about 35 per game) than fifth-year senior Jarron Jones’ (82, or about 27 per game, although he had 44 versus MSU to Cage's 30).
Against the Spartans, it was sophomore defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s turn in the spotlight. When Michigan State challenged Notre Dame’s interior early in the game, the Irish won that battle because the run game was limited to 25 yards on 13 carries in the opening three series. Thereafter the Spartans started attacking the perimeter more, where their success began to flourish, particularly in the third quarter. Still, Tillery finished with five tackles, two of them for lost yardage, while carrying out his assignments well overall.
“Tillery was outstanding,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “He was our best defensive lineman on Saturday. Played his best game since he's been at Notre Dame — which is unfortunate in some respects because I stand up there every week, and I don't talk about all four of them playing their best each and every week.”
Tillery was thrust into a major role as a true freshman last year when Jones was lost for the regular season because of an injury. He and Cage tag-teamed at nose guard, where in 351 snaps (about 29 per game) Tillery was credited with a modest 12 tackles (two for lost yardage).
Because Tillery was so worldly and arrived with such huge fanfare and personality, it was easy to forget that he was still an 18-year-old freshman playing one of the most physically demanding positions in football. A student version of a Renaissance Man, Tillery has been a world traveler, including trips to Europe during his fall and spring breaks last year, while also being involved in a wide range of campus activities, including student body president campaigning for a friend.
The natural inquiry was whether football was really important to Tillery or just another item to put on his vast dossier — and Kelly questioned that too.
“I understand why I’m here,” Tillery responded this spring. “I know what comes first and second. I feel like I’ve worked on and gotten better at prioritizing things in my life. It’s not an easy process.”
The results are beginning to show. Last year his stamina understandably limited him to about 25 to 30 snaps per game. This year his unofficial snap count total has been 78 (Texas), 42 (Nevada) and 61 (Michigan State), or about 60 per game, double from last season. More important is his production and effectiveness, which also comes from shifting from nose guard to the graduated Sheldon Day’s three-technique slot. Finally, having a full year’s work in a college strength and conditioning program has aided his endurance.
“He focused a little bit more on football,” Kelly stated immediately when asked what has led to Tillery’s improvement. “He didn't go to Europe. He cut down on his social agenda. He only ran one presidential campaign this year. Honestly, he focused a little bit more on football and his conditioning, and it was on Jerry.
“Jerry's put more time [into] football, more time in his development … He put a lot of that other stuff, those other things that were part of his freshman year — he did a lot in his freshman year. He did more than most people would do in four years, and he put a lot of that aside to focus on football.”
Tillery epitomized the perception that because Notre Dame student-athletes generally are so well rounded, the football aspect is less important to them than at superpowers such as Alabama and Ohio State. Consequently, that’s why it can remain a top-20 caliber operation, and even vie to be in the top 10, but doesn’t have the single-minded focus to rank among the elite.
“I like the fact that our student-athletes, in particular our football players, have the option to do other things because I think you can do other things,” Kelly said. “I think there's enough time to do all those things. It's a holistic education and that's a great thing. It's one of our distinctions. You get a chance to go abroad and do those other things.
“You have to just be really, really disciplined. You have to be unique in that sense. You have to be so focused and disciplined on your football while you're here. You have to have a sense of urgency. We lack that with our group right now, and we've got to get to that. If we can get that sense of urgency, then we're going to be in pretty good shape.”
Individually, Tillery, Jones, Cage, senior end Isaac Rochell, and junior end Andrew Trumbetti have displayed “flashes” this season. What Kelly and the Irish defense seek is something more holistic on the field.
“Jarron did some good things, but he lacks a sense of urgency,” Kelly said. “Isaac's got to let it go. In particular, in pass pro. We're waiting for him in pass to get that quarterback. He's so close, we want to see him go. Andrew played really hard and really physical.
“We're close to getting where I stand before you and go all four of those guys, or all five of those guys, played their very best. We want to get to that point. We're not there yet, but we're getting closer.”
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