There was South Africa, Germany and Ireland. There was the campus political campaign and the starring role in “A Season With Notre Dame.” There was supposed to be Jerusalem. Instead, there was Hawaii and surfing lessons. There was a position change too, but that’s the least interesting thing about Jerry Tillery right now.
Keith Gilmore would like to change that.
Notre Dame’s defensive line coach has watched Tillery’s first year at arm’s length, from early enrollment through this preseason. And he’s wondered if football has always come first for the renaissance sophomore, even after starting three games – as many as Stephon Tuitt – in his debut season.
“I think about it,” Gilmore said. “I can’t say anything about, but I do think about it.”
That silence is only partially true as Gilmore challenged Tillery this off-season to be more than an interesting sidebar. He pushed him in film study. He pushed him on technique. He talked up Tillery’s potential, something Tillery himself hasn’t always embraced.
The results, through two weeks of training camp, are incomplete. However, they also seem to be encouraging, mostly. While Brian VanGorder didn’t install Tillery has Sheldon Day’s replacement during Media Day, Brian Kelly has called him one of the roster’s more improved players. Isaac Rochell backed that up too, and he has a better view of the defensive tackle than the head coach.
“I think he’s a different player than he was going into the spring,” Rochell said. “He’s really developed a lot of his skills and done a great job.”
Tillery slid over from nose guard – he rotated with Daniel Cage there last season after Jarron Jones went down – to three technique. It’s the difference between holding blocks and beating them, with Notre Dame needing the latter as much as the former.
Tillery posted 12 tackles and one sack last season. That ties him for the team lead among returning defensive linemen.
“I grew up a lot,” Tillery said. “The ups and downs, I learned from all of it. I had a lot of fun. I think I’m a better person one year older. I think I can take that experience into this year.”
Tillery admits he wasn’t all there all the time during spring practice after coming down from the high of starting as a true freshman – only Aaron Lynch started more among freshmen at the position in the past decade – and the low of his Fiesta Bowl suspension for a violation of team rules.
And it’s not like Notre Dame could genuinely put Tillery in a competition against a teammate for time either. His backup is classmate Elijah Taylor, who’s coming off a red-shirt freshman season.
So the question isn’t whether or not Tillery can win the job, it’s how much he can help Notre Dame win while holding it.
“I think coach Gilmore, he sees the potential that I have, but that means nothing if I don’t work toward it and realize it,” Tillery said. “That was the challenge. To work hard and realize the greatness that you can become. That’s been the focus of my off-season.”
In two weeks Tillery will show just how much he’s learned at Texas, a team he posted his only career sack against last September.
Since then Tillery has served as campaign manager for the student body presidential candidate who lost to Corey Robinson. He went on fall break to Ireland. He went on spring break to Germany. He had planned to study in Jerusalem this May, but opted for a vacation in Hawaii.
Tillery picked up surfing for the first time while on the islands.
“When in Hawaii do as the islanders do, right?” he said.
Now he’s back, as engaged with the Notre Dame football program as he’s ever been. That’s the kind of thing every player says this time of year when school hasn’t started and the anticipation of opening night is peaking. If it lasts, Notre Dame might have a future pro replacing Day. If it doesn’t, it won’t.
“A lot of it is Jerry,” Gilmore said. “When Jerry decides to do something, Jerry can be pretty good at it. I just think that he’s made that decision.”