SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Romeo Okwara walked into Notre Dame’s locker room one day and saw freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery sitting on a chair, with his right and left legs resting on other adjacent chairs at an almost 90-degree angle.
“He was just sitting in there very comfortably,” Okwara, a senior defensive end, laughed. “I just looked at him and was like, 'Jerry, what are you doing?' And he was like OK, he realized he was being Jerry.”
Everybody on Notre Dame’s defense seems to have a Jerry Tillery story. Defensive players have been calling him “Terry Jillery” for weeks. He and defensive tackle/senior captain Sheldon Day were featured prominently in this week’s “A Season With Notre Dame Football” on Showtime playing mini golf — a round which Day said he won, of course.
"He's always good for a laugh or something,” safety Matthias Farley said. “His facial expressions are hilarious.”
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But beyond the goofiness and good-natured ribbing is an extremely talented true freshman who’s ably filled in for Jarron Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason camp.
“He also works his tail off, and he wants to be really good,” Farley continued. “I think it's that, coupled with an incredible work ethic and drive that make him a lot of fun to play with and a lot of fun to be around on and off the field. He's pushing guys around him to be better, and he's not satisfied with being mediocre whatsoever. So I think that brings everyone else up, as well.”
Tillery came to Notre Dame as a four-star offensive line recruit from Shreveport, La., but flipped over to the other side of the line of scrimmage soon after arriving on campus in January. He wowed coaches during spring practice with his athleticism — he’s incredibly flexible, as evidenced by Okwara’s story — and a temperament that led him to not get rattled in response to some tough coaching.
That hasn’t changed since the start of preparations for the 2015 season.
“He’s fun to coach,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said in August. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s a real level-headed kid, a very confident kid.”
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Tillery has four tackles and a sack in three games splitting time as nose guard with sophomore Daniel Cage (eight tackles). Coach Brian Kelly said Tillery and Cage are “equal,” and they’ll continue rotating in and out throughout the fall.
The impact Tillery has made in his short college career goes beyond the box score, though. Linebacker and team captain Joe Schmidt said Tillery is always positive before games, which Farley said is a sign of his maturity.
“It's a game,” Farley said. “It's supposed to be fun. It can't always be a clenched fist. You have to be able to be loose and be able to lock in when it's time.”
Tillery wants to go through the pre-med process and become a doctor someday, a career path inspired by his family — both his parents are in the medical field and one of his sisters is a nurse. He’s an “intellectual,” Schmidt said, who’s as comfortable in the middle of South Africa as he is the middle of a football field.
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When asked if he was concerned about balancing an ambitious major with the rigors of a football player’s schedule, Tillery bristled at the notion it’d be too difficult.
“Why can’t you do both? Plenty of people have done it before me,” Tillery said. “I don’t think I’m the first one with those aspirations. I’m handling the course work. I’m doing pretty well on the field. Why can’t I have both?”
It’s sometimes easy to forget Tillery is only a freshman, not only because he’s been on campus for eight months but because of his reputation within the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Again: Everyone has a Tillery story, and if all goes well for Notre Dame, those watching him play will, too.
“He lightens everything up,” Day said. “For example, yesterday, we were in film, and he made a comment that had the whole room laughing. Just things like that which you appreciate in Jerry.”
Could Day share the comment?
“I don't know if I could say (it),” he laughed.