Defensive lineman at heart

When Notre Dame switched Jerry Tillery’s position to defensive tackle just before his enrollment the Irish fell in line with conventional wisdom around Louisiana that the four-star athlete is better used chasing quarterbacks than protecting them.

Ken Sears had watched enough Jerry Tillery tape heading into the first round of the Louisiana state playoffs to appreciate the Notre Dame early enrollee’s skills.

Then the game started.

The head coach at St. Paul’s, which would ultimately fall 43-42 to Evangel Christian Academy, got a different scouting report straight from his son, who also happened to be the quarterback Tillery was hunting.

“He took a couple shots from him and came to the sidelines, ‘Dad, he’s pretty good,’” Sears said. “His quickness for his size, that was hard to gauge on tape and we found that out pretty quickly in the game.

“He was a pretty good defensive player. I’d put him there.”

Notre Dame agrees, switching Tillery’s projected position late in the recruiting process after the 6-foot-6, 308-pound athlete had been committed for more than a year. The Irish offered and landed Tillery the summer before his junior year at ECA when he impressed Harry Hiestand during Notre Dame’s camp. He was the first commitment in the class, beating Tristen Hoge to that punch by almost six months.

Yet, despite Notre Dame’s expected three-man class of defensive tackles to go with last year’s four-man haul, Tillery will start spring practice in that group instead of at offensive tackle where he shined during national combines last summer.

For those around Shreveport, that switch represents common sense.

ECA head coach Byron Dawson played defensive tackle at LSU and started Tillery at the position as a sophomore, ultimately doubling him on the offensive line because of injury. The four-star prospect played both lines with a few snaps at tight end mixed in.

Tillery saw his future on the offensive line from his sophomore year on, mainly because that’s where most recruiters predicted he’d play after ECA faced University Lab in Baton Rouge that season. The game put a sophomore Tillery against senior four-star defensive end Tim Williams, who signed with Alabama.

“He straight shut that kid down, he didn’t do anything,” Dawson said. “That’s when people saw him as a prototypical offensive tackle, long arms, athletic, can do the splits. He kind of fell into that, that offensive line was what people thought he should be.”

The next summer that started to change when Tillery attended a big man camp with Dawson at Nicholls State. Pete Jenkins, who coached defensive line at LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and with the Philadelphia Eagles, ran the camp. The workouts drew NFL position coaches as instructors, including Buffalo Bills defensive line coach Karl Dunbar.

Tillery drilled at that camp before his junior and senior years, with the second experience enough to get him thinking about a future on the defensive line. When LSU came after Tillery last season with the promise to play defensive line and Texas A&M did the same through head coach Kevin Sumlin, it helped make the switch in South Bend happen.

That also meant Tillery bucked stereotypes with a personality wired more toward Dartmouth than LSU, both of which got official visits. Dawson admitted the early enrollee is an offensive lineman off the field, at least in his demeanor.

“If you just met him, he’s a prototypical offensive lineman, smart kid, reading the stock report or business section in the locker room. Defensive linemen are reading the sports section at best. Or they’re just playing on their phones,” Dawson said. “He hits a switch when he puts his hand in the dirt. There’s a mean streak.”

Notre Dame could use it mixed into a young position where Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum and Elijah Taylor will also join the program. Dew-Treadway also enrolled early. None of those three spent off-seasons running 5K races or doing triathlons in the Louisiana heat.

“If you saw him, you’d think he’s 280 or 290 at the most,” Dawson said. “He’s mostly lower body strength and very fit. He’s played himself into a two-way player and took every snap for us.

“He’s extremely rare at his height. Guys who are that tall are usually not limber, they can’t stay low. But Jerry is athletic and super fit. When you get tall guys like Julius Peppers, that’s when you really get that upside and push the pocket.”


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories