Jerry Tillery is used to the teasing. Growing up in Shreveport, La. with three older sisters, baby brother – now a 6-foot-6 ½, 305-pound freshman defensive lineman at Notre Dame – knows the routine.
“I keep it light,” said Tillery of the good-natured ribbing that his new teammates have offered, picking up where his siblings left off. “I understand it’s all in good fun. We have fun with each other.”
Whether it’s transposing the first initials of his first and last name to form the name Terry Jillery – the preferred pronunciation by senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day – or some cajoling on his way to the outdoor port-a-potty to keep his helmet on during his bathroom break, Tillery gets the business from those around him.
“Crazy, right?” said Tillery of the bathroom experience captured on film during Showtime’s A Season With Notre Dame Football. “Come on.”
Just as crazy is the unique combination of skills offered by the former four-star offensive tackle who expected to be plying his trade under the tutelage of Notre Dame’s Harry Hiestand, only to begin leaning toward the defensive side as his days as an early-entry freshman at Notre Dame approached.
“Coach Hiestand is a great coach,” Tillery said. “One of the best in the game. He recruited me. We still talk all the time.
“But I had all the confidence in the world in myself. I knew what I could do. I understood it would be a raise in competition level, but I was ready for it. I have good coaches here showing me the way. It’s been fun.”
The Irish will need a new left offensive tackle in 2016 when Ronnie Stanley takes his own immense skills to the NFL. But in 2015, the Irish needed a barrier in the middle of the defensive line, particularly when starting nose tackle Jarron Jones was felled by a season-ending knee injury in August.
Tillery, working with sophomore Daniel Cage at nose tackle while cross-training at Day’s defensive tackle spot, immediately became the frontrunner for the starting call in the season-opener against Texas. That distinction ultimately went to Cage each of the first two weeks of the season.
But in last week’s Georgia Tech game, Tillery was installed as the starter and helped stymie the Yellow Jackets spread-option offense.
“Far and away, the story is Jerry Tillery,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly back in the spring. “He’s just a unique player, one that I can’t remember that I’ve coached. (The offensive line) has had a hard time blocking him. He has a unique ability at such a young age to use his hands.
“Where we spend the first year-and-a-half trying to get these kids to not drop their head and be overextended, he immediately can use his hands and his size to his advantage. I don’t want to put him in the Hall of Fame. I’m so leery to talk about a freshman, but he’s a unique talent.”
Tillery hasn’t taken the first three opponents of the 2015 season by storm as Kelly’s spring comments suggested he might. But he remains a key element along a defensive line that is anchored by Day and junior Isaac Rochell. Tillery probably played his most effective game in an Irish uniform last week against Georgia Tech after recording his first career sack against the Longhorns two weeks earlier.
“Great balance,” assessed Irish center Nick Martin, who has butted heads with Tillery a few hundred times since the start of pre-season camp. “His body twists and turns in weird ways, and he always seems to stay up so you have to have your feet underneath you. You can’t be (leaning) forward at all.”
Tillery learned the tricks of the defensive-line trade while at Evangel Christian High School, where he came under the tutelage of head coach Byron Dawson and long-time college and pro defensive line coach Pete Jenkins. It was in Shreveport that Tillery learned how to use his hands the way defensive linemen generally pick it up at the next level.
Beyond Tillery’s football skills is a thoughtful, learned, curious young man who views football as just one of the many things in life that interests him.
“He’s a unique cat,” said Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt. “He’s an intellectual guy.”
“Jerry’s an awesome guy, very engaging,” said Irish safety Matthias Farley. “He’s come in and worked his tail off and put himself in a position to be playing a lot as a true freshman. (Plus) his head’s really big so he’s very, very smart.”
“He wants to live life to the fullest and he’s trying to do everything in his power to get the full Notre Dame experience and just experience the outside world, going to places like Mexico, Ireland…”
…And South Africa. Tillery was part of the contingent -- including linebacker Jaylon Smith and wide receiver Corey Robinson – that made the trek to South Africa, spearheaded by Anre Venter, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Notre Dame.
“It was incredible,” said Tillery of the South Africa trip. “It was easily the coolest thing I’ve ever done from the safaris to the beaches in Cape Town…It was a country of contrasts. The huge townships with the poorest people in the world to opulent neighborhoods with the super rich and fancy…It was a country that really gave me a different outlook on life.”
Opulent? Yeah, that’s Jerry Tillery, which is why it should come as no surprise that Tillery has aspirations well beyond the gridiron. Like Notre Dame orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan – a former linebacker with the Irish in the 1990s – Tillery has dreams of becoming a doctor.
“Why can’t you do both?” said Tillery matter-of-factly. “Plenty of people have done it before me. I’m not the first one with those aspirations. I’m handling the course work and I’m doing pretty well on the field.
“Both my parents are in the medical field. My sister is a nurse and it’s been in my life from the beginning. (Dr. Ratigan) is a close mentor of mine. He’s been helping me for sure.”
In the never-ending juggling act that blurs the line between work and play, Tillery also participated in a triathlon this summer.
“I like to think so,” said Tillery when asked about Schmidt’s “intellectual” comment. “I enjoy the finer things. It’s something I take pride in. I focus on my studies as much as football, so it’s all a balance for me.”
Balance off the field, balance on the field playing defensive line. That’s one unique cat playing nose tackle for the Fighting Irish.