It took Jerry Tillery less than a month to grow from questionable to essential.
Notre Dame’s renaissance defensive tackle, to date known more for his reality show stardom than actual play, just turned in the best performance of his career last Saturday night against Michigan State. He doubled his career tackles for loss by posting a pair. He finished with five stops. He answered the bell against the Spartans by logging 61 snaps.
“Tillery was outstanding,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “He was our best defensive lineman on Saturday.”
Now Tillery, who’s punched his passport to South Africa, Ireland and Germany since arriving in South Bend, is indispensible within the Irish defense. His story has become less about extra curriculars than what brought him to Notre Dame in the first place.
And that’s all part of the natural progression for Tillery, who was Notre Dame’s most productive freshman defensive lineman under Kelly since Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. After seeing spot work last season, now Tillery rarely comes off he field.
He’s logged 186 real defensive snaps, which trails only Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu. Tillery didn’t hit that snap total until game six last season.
“Honestly, he focused a little bit more on football and his conditioning, and it was on Jerry,” Kelly said. “Jerry’s put more time in football, more time in his development. And, again, he’s a year into the program. He was a freshman last year. So now he’s a year further along in the program. So he’s built that stamina. He’s built that conditioning.”
“But a lot of credit goes to him. He did a lot in his freshman year. He did more than most people would do in four years, and he put a lot of that aside to focus on football.”
Notre Dame needs that focus to stay as the defensive line struggles to expand its rotation and improve its overall play. Jonathan Bonner, Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara all saw their roles expand last week.
You might have heard the Irish don’t have a sack this season, tied for last nationally with Nevada. Kelly’s commentary that sacks are overrated doesn’t sync with the fact Alabama and Clemson led the nation in that category last year and Houston does this season. The only time the Irish got beyond 30 sacks in a season under Kelly was, you guessed it, back in 2012.
But even getting pressure has been a challenge with Kelly reluctant to go blitz-heavy with a young secondary.
Against Michigan State and Texas the Irish pressured Tyler O’Connor and Shane Buechele just seven times. The quarterbacks combined to go 3-of-7 for 34 yards and an interception on those snaps.
When Notre Dame didn’t get pressure, they went 32-of-45 for 461 yards, four touchdowns and one pick.
“If you bring pressure, you put pressure,” Kelly said. “So it’s measured. It’s measured by how much pressure do you want to put on your corners and safeties? And so we're measuring that. We’re measuring it by down and distance. We’re measuring it by opponent from week to week.”
The Irish have yet to measure up.
But if Tillery makes last Saturday night his new standard, it’s a good bet Notre Dame eventually will.