Jerry Tillery has already come a long way

It’s hard to know where to start with Jerry Tillery. But it’s clear the sophomore has more interesting things happening than spring practice.

Football is boring with Jerry Tillery.

That doesn’t mean the sport paying for his Notre Dame education is tiresome to the sophomore defensive tackle, it’s just one of the least interesting things about him.

Consider Tillery’s freshman season weighed against his freshman year.

He started three games, made 12 tackles and got suspended for the Fiesta Bowl for a violation of team rules. He also visited at least 10 countries but wondered, “Do airports count?” in making that total. He switched academic paths from medicine to economics. He starred on Showtime. He managed the presidential campaign that lost to Corey Robinson. He’ll study in Jerusalem this summer.

It’s all enough to make questions about pad level and pass rush tedious even if Tillery is working on both this spring.

“I’m trying to take full advantage of this experience,” Tillery said. “I know there’s a lot to offer.”

Robinson and Steve Elmer, who Tillery shouted out for his economics switch, felt the same way. Robinson nearly quit football to pursue postgraduate scholarships. Elmer did walk away, taking a job in consulting around Washington D.C. Now Tillery has similar pulls around campus and abroad, ones he said he’s learned to manage.

“I understand why I’m here, right? I know what comes first and second,” Tillery said. “I feel I’ve worked on and gotten better at prioritizing things in my life.”

Notre Dame needs the 6-foot-6 ½, 310-pound defensive lineman to be more than present this season with Sheldon Day and his team-leading 15.5 tackles for loss in the NFL. After playing nose guard last season in place of the injured Jarron Jones, Tillery has since moved into Day’s three technique role.

In theory, that should be a natural position for the former offensive line recruit who could probably run with that first-team now if he’d stuck there. Instead, he’ll pair with Jones to give Notre Dame a 620-pound tandem in the middle of its defense.

“This is just a different challenge,” Tillery said. “This is something I’m starting to learn and enjoying for the most part. I think I’ll be successful here. My traits lend themselves to this position for sure.”

But enough about football. Let’s get back to international travel.

Tillery spent spring break in Germany to see a family friend. He spent a couple days in Paris, plus took a side trip to Poland to visit Auschwitz. In addition to South Africa last summer, Tillery also visited Guatemala.  He hit Ireland during fall break last season. There were airport stops in Mexico, Senegal and Turkey. Tillery visited Canada at some point too.

“That may be it, I don’t know,” he said. “That’s quite a bit for a year.”

Jerusalem is next for a three-week theology course, which safety Drue Tranquill will also take. Tillery said he got confirmation on his flights this week.

It’s all enough to make that bowl suspension an afterthought but not an omission from Tillery’s first season. Getting pulled from the lineup against Ohio State wasn’t announced until the morning of the game and wasn’t serious enough to keep him away from the team. Tillery went through some warmups but didn’t dress.

He didn’t get into details about why he couldn’t play against the Buckeyes but said he’d talked to the coaching staff, teammates and his parents about it.

“It’s a privilege to play on this team,” Tillery said. “When you break rules, that’s something that gets taken away. I know how lucky we are to be here. I’m not perfect. I think this definitely proved that.”

No, Jerry Tillery is not perfect. He’s just one of the program’s most interesting personalities. And that’s not changing.

Now, if Tillery can also become one of Notre Dame’s best defensive players, this story could really get interesting.

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