It’s not like Notre Dame hasn’t started a freshman defensive lineman to open a season before. It’s just that Michigan was the defending national champion the last time it happened.
Back in 1998, Anthony Weaver helped the Irish upset the Wolverines in South Bend.
Now Jerry Tillery might be next.
When Jarron Jones got his legs caught in a pile of linemen during Friday’s practice and suffered a significant right MCL injury that will require season-ending surgery, it amplified the spotlight already on Tillery.
The freshman from Louisiana stood out during spring practice when Jones was sidelined during rehab from November foot surgery. Tillery made another impression Saturday by getting into the backfield enough that Kelly would rather start a freshman in the opener than move junior Isaac Rochell inside. Rochell played end and tackle during the Music City Bowl.
For that reality, Brian Kelly can thank early enrollment.
“It was invaluable to have him here in the spring given that he’s going to be in a pretty prominent role for us on the defensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “He knows the defense pretty well. The more he’s here the more he’s comfortable with being put in the role of going out and playing as a freshman.”
Sophomore Daniel Cage will back up Tillery with freshman Elijah Taylor the third-team choice at nose tackle. Starting Tillery actually does require a position switch because he’d been backing up Sheldon Day at the three technique until this weekend, although the one-time offensive tackle recruit drilled at Jones’ position during spring ball.
Jones’ condition was in question even before this injury because of that left foot surgery in November that wiped out his off-season. While Kelly insisted Jones had “no restrictions” during camp, the senior had been held back by the staff during practices open to the media.
Kelly said Jones will stay with the program during the season and travel to road games, setting the table for a fifth-year campaign in 2016.
“I think it’s important to make sure they’re still part of the team so I reemphasized that to Jarron,” Kelly said. “We want his personality around the team. And heck, it’s Notre Dame. All you need is one good fall. You play well for one fall here at Notre Dame, it’s an on Broadway play. Everybody (in the NFL) is going to see ya.”
Activating Taylor for spot duty will be an emergency measure, although playing freshman defensive linemen has been a habit under Kelly. The overwhelming majority of first-year players got action the past five years, including Day, Rochell, Cage, Jay Hayes, Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.
While Tillery will certainly join that group, those odds also favor Taylor making the jump, robbing him of a potential fifth-year down the road. However, that could be saved if reserve Jacob Matuska is good enough to spell Tillery and Cage.
“(Taylor) has to be one of our strongest defensive linemen,” Kelly said. “He (benches) 225 25 times. He’s better suited for the three-technique. He’s athletic and he can move.”
Whatever the combinations Notre Dame employs at nose tackle this season, none will be Kelly’s ideal of a healthy Jones with young talent ready to rest him. Instead, Tillery could be on the verge of doing something so rare that Kelly was still at Grand Valley State the last time it happened.