Jerry Tillery‘s recruitment was anything but ordinary. Long committed to the Irish, Notre Dame held off LSU, with Les Miles and the Tigers’ coaching staff doing everything they could to talk the local product into staying home.
In the nonstop news cycle that covers recruiting, Tillery never wavered from his commitment to Notre Dame. But that didn’t stop countless reports and stories from focusing on the blue-chipper, especially as Tillery utilized his official visits to see campuses near and far, checking things out in Baton Rouge, along with visits to Arkansas, Texas A&M and... Dartmouth.
The final visit likely gives you an idea why Notre Dame ended up landing Tillery. But most Irish fans weren’t convinced he was coming until he was moved into his dorm and enrolled in classes, a last-minute flip that never came.
But if there was a flip, it was the big change during Tillery’s recruitment—his future position. Long expected to be an offensive tackle prospect, Tillery and the Irish coaching staff concluded that the freshman would start out on the defensive side of the ball.
To most fans watching, that seemed like a concession made by a staff doing whatever it took to keep Tillery happy. But as we’ve seen and heard through the early days of workouts and spring practice, the Irish staff believes they have something special in Tillery the defensive lineman.
Brian Kelly confirmed that praise Wednesday morning when he talked about some of the impressive performances he’s seen this spring.
“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery. He’s just a unique player. One that I can’t remember that I’ve coached,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He’s running with our first group and continues to impress. Today in our 3 on 3 drill, they had a tough time blocking him.”
With Jarron Jones out and Sheldon Day on a coaches-imposed pitch count, young defensive linemen like Tillery and Jay Hayes have had all the reps they could ask for at the three-technique. But in Tillery, Notre Dame has an athlete with the size to play inside by the length and athleticism to play on the edge.
At a legit 6'6", 300 pounds (Tillery’s officially 6'6.5" on Notre Dame’s spring roster, shorter than only Mike McGlinchey on the scholarship roster), the freshman has a body that looks far leaner than most 300-pounders, let alone freshmen.
And while some thought he’d be raw as a defensive lineman, Kelly raved about his advanced skill set, crediting the work he did as a high schooler for having him so prepared to compete.
“He has a unique ability at such a young age to use his hands,” Kelly said. “He has had incredible teaching. One of the all-time great defensive line coaches is Pete Jenkins, if you research him at all, he’s revered as one of the great ones, and he’s gotten the chance to coach him. You can see it, in his ability to use his hands.”
With Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey locked into the offensive tackle jobs, Tillery looked like a redshirt candidate as an offensive player. But along a defensive line that’s still incredibly young, Tillery is quickly making it hard for Kelly to tamp down expectations.
“Where we spend the first year-and-a-half trying to get these kids to not drop their head and be over-extended, he immediately can shoot his hands and use his size to his advantage,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the hall of fame, I’m so leery to talk about a freshman, but he’s a unique talent.”