Jerry Tillery slowed down a bit during the spring as the grind of practice and the adjustment to college life caught up to him. But the hulking, early-enrolling Louisiana native still left a strong first impression on his teammates and coaches during March and April, one that could vault him to playing significant minutes for the Irish this fall.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Tillery exited spring practice with what appears to be a firm grip on the No. 2 nose guard job when incumbent Jarron Jones returns from a Lisfranc foot injury this summer.
“Some of the things he can do are just like, he’ll do something crazy and I’ll wonder how the heck that happened,” sophomore defensive end Andrew Trumbetti said. “We’ll all just look at each other and be confused. I’m glad he’s on our D-line.”
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The confusion arises from how a nose guard of his size can play with the kind of “unique” leverage defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder described. But Tillery’s athleticism, strong base and ability to use his hands have allowed a bit of hyperbole to seep into the truth of how impressive he looked in March and April.
“He’ll be rushing around the edge and his head is almost scraping the floor he’s so low to it, he’s running sideways,” Trumbetti said. “It’s so weird. He does some pretty crazy things.”
Notre Dame’s interior defensive line depth was tested — and struggled — in 2014 when Jones and Sheldon Day went down with injuries. The problem became so inflamed that a few days after coach Brian Kelly said Chase Hounsell wasn’t big enough to play inside, Hounshell — who has since moved to tight end — had to tag in at defensive tackle in a 49-14 rout at USC.
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Those depth issues are what made Tillery’s spring emergence so important. Jones is expected to be fully healthy for June OTAs (former Irish center Braxston Cave suffered the same injury around a similar time in 2011 and started all 13 games in 2012) but Tillery’s presence behind him gives Notre Dame a solid No. 2 option if he needs a breather or has to miss any time.
Notre Dame knew Tillery had the kind of athleticism that would play on the defensive line — VanGorder & Co. swiped the one-time offensive line recruit from Harry Hiestand’s unit — but what coaches didn’t expect was how quickly he’d grasp his position. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said Tillery is “ahead of most” early-enrolling freshmen he’s had, and for VanGorder, it all goes back to leverage.
“You could see that for a (300)-pounder his flexibility was special,” VanGorder said. “You see the kind of flexibility. So when the leverage thing showed up, it made a little bit of sense, as loose as he is.”
Adding to Tillery’s rising star is how his personality meshed with his defensive line teammates. Junior end Isaac Rochell said he “fits in with the D-line culture perfect” and said the Shreveport native has done an impressive job adjusting to college life about 900 miles away from home.
Tillery is the recipient of the usual ribbing that comes with being an early-enrollee, even if Rochell said he doesn’t act like he should still be in high school.
“I think we make him feel like that because we’re always messing with him,” Rochell smiled. “But Jerry’s really mature, he’s a really smart guy, he stays on top of his grades. So he’s got his stuff together for sure.”
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Outside of wide receiver/running back hybrid C.J. Prosise and safety Max Redfield, no player earned more consistent plaudits from coaches and teammates than Tillery during spring practice. He appears to enter the summer ahead of sophomore Daniel Cage and junior Jacob Matuska on the nose guard depth chart, even though both those guys logged significant minutes over the course of the 2014 season (especially in November).
But the aspect of Tillery’s game that’s impressed his position coach the most is the kind of attitude and disposition he’s brought to what could’ve been a difficult transition. Gilmore said Tillery is a “one-mistake guy” and takes to tough coaching well.
“The thing that I’ve seen more of and am really excited about is he doesn’t get rattled,” Gilmore said. “Like a lot off young kids, they make a mistake and you rip their tails and they’re in the tank. He doesn’t do that. He shakes his head, okay, coach, I got it and go to the next play and act like nothing ever happened. That’s a big plus.”