Keith Gilmore, welcome to the cauldron. Enjoy the warmth.
Notre Dame’s first-year defensive line coach, but a veteran of 31 years of college coaching, has developed a track record of producing high-level performers attractive to coaching staffs on the next level.
In the last five NFL drafts, the NFL has tabbed Gilmore protégés in the first round (Illinois’ Corey Liuget in ’11 and Whitney Mercilus in ’12), third round (North Carolina’s Kareem Martin in ’14) and fourth round (Illinois’ Akeem Spence in ’13).
While he inherited a veteran bunch of players who garnered plenty of playing time in 2014 – including several youngsters – Gilmore must now make a rapid conversion at a position virtually devoid of experience in the aftermath of Jarron Jones’ season-ending injury.
“We’re at a point where we think we’ve got a really good football team,” said Gilmore, whose coaching career overlapped with Irish head coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before being reunited this spring.
“I want us to get out and showcase ourselves and see what we look like against top-notch competition.”
With Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti leading the way at end and mainstay Sheldon Day anchoring the three-technique inside, only one position is the “sore thumb” of the defensive front, and that’s nose guard.
True freshman Jerry Tillery arrived in the spring, which truly was a blessing now that Jones has been sidelined. The 6-foot-6 ½, 305-pound Tillery – one of the top-rated prep offensive tackles in the country last year – quickly was moved to defense where the results were nothing short of spectacular for such a young prospect.
“I’ve had some good freshmen, but the combination of size and athleticism and flexibility that he has is a little different than the guys I’ve had,” Gilmore said. “They were normally a shorter, powerful, stocky-type kid. I’ve not had a freshman with the sort of length and athleticism of Jerry.
“He understands football from being an ex-offensive lineman. He knows a little about the blocking schemes and the things happening to him. He’s able to anticipate where he should go and what he should do. It’s been a blessing for him and me because he’s had that offensive line experience.”
But despite the promise and encouragement offered by Tillery’s future in the game, the fact of the matter is the Irish still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the middle of an otherwise fairly experienced defensive front.
Thirteen opponents ran 938 plays against the Irish in ’14 – and average of 72.1 snaps per game – and it’s highly unlikely that Tillery is emotionally and physically prepared for that type of workload.
That’s not unusual. Jones was entering his senior season (with a year of eligibility remaining in 2016) and he still didn’t have that kind of stamina. That’s why it was so encouraging to have a prospect like Tillery behind Jones to offer size, length and some of the sweetest pair of hands you’re every going to see on an interior defensive lineman.
“We have to match hands because the person with the hand placement that gets his hands to the point quicker is normally the guy that wins the one-on-one battle,” Gilmore said. “Jerry has that kind of ability.”
But will it be enough for a team with playoff expectations? Despite the issues that sometimes plagued Jones, like stamina and consistency, he brought to the lineup an immeasurable asset for a man in the middle of the defensive line. You simply did not root Jones off the football, which meant that an offense’s success always hinged on the fact that Jones was a 6-foot-5 ½, 305-pound impediment smack dab in the middle of the action.
Actually, Tillery likely has become the least of Gilmore’s worries at nose guard. Behind Tillery, there’s sophomore Daniel Cage, a 6-foot-0 ¾, 315-pounder who has even more workload issues than Jones. At least Tillery arrived in the spring a well-conditioned prospect.
“We’re trying to get Daniel in a little better shape and for him to understand the defense as well,” Gilmore said. “We need to give him some tips to help him not get blocked and washed (out) and that sort of thing. His work volume is definitely a concern.”
Beyond those two, there’s junior Jacob Matuska, who was forced into the starting lineup against USC in the ’14 regular-season finale with little results. At 6-foot-4 ½, 295, Matuska is not at the forefront of Notre Dame’s interior defensive line plans, despite Jones’ loss. Red-shirt freshman Peter Mokwuah – a 6-foot-2 ¾, 317-pounder – does not appear to be a viable candidate at this time.
A strong alternative is moving country-strong senior end Isaac Rochell inside, which will happen in passing situations. But Gilmore prefers to keep Rochell at “big end” on first and second down when most of the between-the-tackle runs are dialed up.
Ready or not, true freshman Jerry Tillery is going to have to man-up and carry the vast majority of the load at the most demanding position in football.
“We anticipated (Tillery) playing at Texas (before Jones’ injury), just like we anticipate him playing now,” Gilmore said. “So it hasn’t changed a lot. Jarron was out all spring and Jerry was pretty much a starter. He took a lot of the first-team reps all spring long. He’s on track to be a guy that’s going to be a big contributor.
“The biggest things for him are to understand the defense and that he doesn’t have to make every play. He can just do his job and we’ll be fine as opposed to taking chances and peeking and doing things that are out of the context of the defense.”
If Tillery can just take care of his own business – which has a higher chance of success by the mere fact he’s such a talented prospect – the drop-off in experience could be mitigated.
“High school players are the best player on the team and everybody wants them to make plays and lets them get away with things,” Gilmore said. “Here, we don’t need that. We’ve got Jaylon Smith and other good football players. We need (Tillery) to do his job, and then if the plays come to him, so be it.
“He’s really fired up. He’s had a couple good days of practice. I think he’s smelling it a little bit.”