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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle

Miami of Ohio v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 30: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Sam McCollum #66 of the Miami (Oh) Redhawks at Notre Dame Stadium on Seotember 30, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Miami (OH) 52-17. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6 ¾, 299 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with only one season of eligibility remaining.
Depth chart: Tillery will start as the three-technique tackle, flipping from nose tackle a season ago.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star, Tillery was recruited as an offensive tackle in large part due to his length.

For the first time in his Notre Dame career, Tillery completed a season without a disciplinary issue in 2017. Perhaps more notably, he started all 13 games and made 56 tackles, including nine for loss with 4.5 sacks. Unlike much of the Irish defense, Tillery even finished the season strong, making three tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the regular season finale at Stanford.

Tillery has 105 career tackles.

There are two storylines regarding Tillery as he approaches his final collegiate season. First of all, his maturity has extended past off-field interests and into on-field leadership. The most obvious sign of that was the simple act of playing each game in its entirety last year. Behind the scenes, Tillery was at least somewhat considered as a captain this spring. He lead a SWAT team through the winter, a distinct signal of the coaching staff’s growing belief in him as a program standard-bearer.

“I think [Tillery] would tell you that his time here at Notre Dame has been extremely formative for him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-April. “He’s learned a lot. He’s made some mistakes. … It’s been a journey for him.

“This year, he’s been forced to be a leader much more than he’s ever been at any time.”

As far as performance concerns go, Tillery’s move to the three-technique has led to talk of his playmaking potential not yet seen at full capacity.

“In a lot of ways, the three-technique position is where you want to have your most disruptive and athletic [player],” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said April 17. “[Tillery is] a guy that in pass-rush can have an impact from that spot, not always drawing the double team [that the nose does].

“… It’s not that he didn’t do the nose position well. It’s the skill for the three-technique is unique and we identified the things that he does well as being conducive to having success in that role. He’s already made his presence felt there.”

“Tillery does not have a track record of acting like a leader needs to. More than increasing his tackles for loss tally, Notre Dame will need Tillery to show a young positional group how to proceed.

“Then, obviously, an increase in tackles for loss and overall tackles would be much appreciated by defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Frankly, both should come just from sheer opportunity available in the middle. For context, [former Irish defensive tackle Jarron] Jones finished the 2016 season with 45 tackles including 11 for loss. If there is any archetype for Tillery, it was the 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound Jones. Admittedly, Tillery does not have the arm length of Jones, but very few do. Most of them end up on the hardwood, not the gridiron.

“By the end of his Notre Dame career, Jones went from a fun-loving definition of potential to a leader who excelled individually in concentrated bursts.”

Tillery at least met expectations last season and, considering the defensive line’s overall success, he arguably exceeded them. The position switch once again raises those intended standards. If Tillery does not match last year’s nine tackles for loss, should that be considered a disappointment? Perhaps not outright. Nothing should be determined that unilaterally.

However, if Tillery does not routinely find his way into the backfield and disrupt opposing offensive coordinators’ best-laid plans, that may be reason for wanting more.

He should be able to do that, though. The Irish now have trusted depth at defensive tackle, whereas a year ago it was utterly unknown entering the season. Tillery does not need to be counted on for too much. Sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and senior Micah Dew-Treadway can provide him plenty of relief. Fresh legs should thus lead to more notable stops.

Tillery matching last year’s 56 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks should indicate greater successes for a defensive front as a whole.

The move to three-technique from nose tackle comes in part because Tillery pondered entering the NFL this winter. The switch becomes a win-win. He can make some plays, perhaps boost his sack count and with it, his draft stock. The Notre Dame defense reaps the rewards of a more athletic, dynamic centerpiece to its defensive line while fifth-year Jonathan Bonner holds the point of attack at nose tackle.

A total of 10 defensive tackles were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. The demand will certainly be there for Tillery if he puts together a complete senior season.

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