Jerry Tillery will play Saturday night against Texas, but he probably won’t start.
That marked the only slight surprise on the Irish depth chart released Tuesday, with sophomore Daniel Cage taking over the top nose tackle position from the early enrollee who had worked with the starting defense during camp’s opening weeks. Not only will Tillery back up Cage, he’ll also spell Sheldon Day at defensive tackle.
Kelly said Tillery had projected behind Day until Jarron Jones’ season-ending MCL injury in mid-August.
For Cage, the move represents positive momentum for a player who had some of it early last season before falling off in November and through spring practice. Cage missed two of the final three games last year with knee injuries and labored through March and April drills.
“Last year he would give us a couple of plays and then fatigue would lock up his brain,” Kelly said. “A lot of that had to do with the inability to maintain the mental awareness of what he was doing because he was fatigued. He's in much better condition. He's so much more mature. Understands our defense so much better.”
Kelly wouldn’t reveal the workload Cage could handle this season, but it must get a major upgrade from his freshman year. Before a knee injury slowed him late in the year, Cage went beyond 20 snaps of defense just once. That was against North Carolina, which snapped off 84 plays against Notre Dame.
Against the moderately paced Michigan, Purdue and Stanford, Cage averaged just 8.3 snaps per game.
“He was always off the charts in terms of his strength and foot quickness,” Kelly said. “Now he's bringing a lot of that for much more of the game in terms of number of plays.”
Tillery had worked with the starting defense early in training camp when the media got looks at four-and-a-half practices, although that was in Jones’ position, not in relief of Day. Kelly admitted the multi-tasking asked of Tillery at two positions could have slowed his development.
“Did that hurt him a little bit maybe? Possibly, because we asked him to do two things and play two different positions,” Kelly said. “I think you will not know, as you watch the game, you won't be able to count up, well, Cage played more than Tillery. It's going to be pretty seamless.”
If he started against Texas, Tillery would have been the first freshman defensive lineman to do that in an opener since Anthony Weaver in 1998.
Expectations for Tillery have been elevated since his early enrollment and push for first-team work during spring practice, when he also replaced Jones. However, despite Tillery’s advanced game Kelly knows there’s nowhere to hide on the defensive line for a freshman.
Unlike KeiVarae Russell or Jaylon Smith starting as freshmen, Tillery’s youth can’t be masked by schemes or play calls. On the defensive line it’s man up or get shoved backward.
“Look, if you're not physically strong enough to hold the point, we saw what happened at USC (last year),” Kelly said. “When we weren't physically able to hold up inside, you're in trouble.”
Any issues the Cage-Tilley dynamic creates for Notre Dame might be difficult to measure against Texas considering the Longhorns plan to start true freshmen at left tackle and right guard. The projected Texas starting offensive line owns just 39 career starts spread among three players.
For the sake of comparison, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin have combined for 50 career starts between them.
In terms of the challenge that awaits Tillery, Day can appreciate it better than most after playing extensively within the 2012 defense that powered Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game. As much as the challenge is physical, Day said the mental focus required can wear down a player too.
“Definitely no plays off,” Day said. “You don’t have some of the strength. You’re playing against fifth-year seniors and they’re 23-years old, even older than that. You got to come 100 miles per hour on every play.
“Definitely think it’s a trial and error and situation.”
On Saturday night, Notre Dame will get a verdict.