Still two months away from his Irish debut, Jerry Tillery has savored more college experiences than some Notre Dame players do in their entire careers.
Before he enrolled last winter, Tillery met with the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh on a recruiting visit. After his first spring practice, Tillery joined a group of Irish athletes on a summer trip to South Africa. While he hasn’t spoken with the media that cover the team, the University has also used Tillery’s story during Notre Dame Day.
On top of all that, the freshman from Shreveport, La., appears to be good at football too.
The Irish Illustrated A-to-Z series continues with arguably the biggest shocker of spring practice, a story that could prove critical to Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff aspirations.
Tillery continues his rapid rise, soundly beating out Daniel Cage and Jacob Matuska during training camp to claim the No. 2 nose tackle spot behind Jarron Jones. While Jones returns to full strength after missing spring practice following foot surgery last fall, Tillery pushes the issue enough to earn 20+ snaps per game. This combination proves good for both Tillery and Jones, who has more energy to recreate Florida State style performances. Tillery chips in a couple dozen tackles on the season to set himself up for a starting job in 2016 if Jones skips his fifth year.
Jarron Jones doesn’t get all the way back from last season’s foot injury, forcing Tillery to play a bigger role than any freshman defensive tackle should. While Tillery is productive for stretches, he also takes a beating in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. Tillery has enough unique skills that the only real negative to this season for him would be the freshman playing too much football at a man’s position. While not beating out Daniel Cage or Notre Dame’s other younger nose guards is technically a possibility, there was no sign of it being an eventuality during spring practice.
Tillery is trending toward a freshman season on par with Sheldon Day. Day also enrolled early, then played his way into the two-deep before kickoff. He ultimately played in every game of Notre Dame’s BCS National Championship Game season, made 23 tackles, two sacks and one pass breakup. That feels like a reasonable bar for Tillery to clear. If Tillery does it, that means he grew into a trusted backup defensive lineman as a true freshman. That’s a difficult feat to accomplishment.
Well, everyone was wrong on this one. All four services slotted Tillery at offensive tackle coming out of high school without a sniff of defensive tackle potential. At least Tillery was a consensus four-star prospect across the recruiting world. Scout slotted Tillery at No. 213 overall, which was higher than ESPN (No. 280) but lower than 247 (No. 85) and Rivals (No. 145). While it’s too soon to say whether Tillery will ultimately prove to be a bona fide four-star talent, his spring practice performance has the jumbo athlete trending in that direction.
TBD. But it’s hard to imagine Tillery not getting meaningful reps against Texas.
“It was like tears, you know? I don't like to admit as a man that I cry, but that was a tough one, for sure.” – associate head coach Mike Denbrock on his reaction to Tillery switching from offense to defense