Today we’re starting our yearly Now or Never series with a familiar face – defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. It may come as a surprise to some, but Jerry Tillery is only entering his junior season this fall even though it seems like he’s been at Notre Dame about as long as Brian Kelly. The junior heads into this season facing a pivotal campaign that will determine which direction his career heads.
Jerry Tillery came to Notre Dame as a 4-star offensive tackle, but Brian Kelly surprised many when he proclaimed that the Louisiana native would be starting his collegiate career as a defensive tackle for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was in a heated battle with LSU all throughout the recruiting cycle even though Tillery was one of the first commitments in the class of 2015. In fact, most Notre Dame fans were uneasy about Tillery’s status all the way up until Signing Day.
After enrolling early in 2015, Tillery was one of the surprises of the Spring as he quickly climbed the depth chart. An injury to Jarron Jones in the summer of 2015 thrust Tillery into the starting lineup and he has been a mainstay in the lineup ever since.
Reason for Doubt
Ok, so why is a junior who has started the past two seasons on the Now or Never list this year? Because even though Tillery has played a lot of football over the last two seasons, the moments in which Tillery has made his presence felt have been few and far between. Despite starting 11 games last fall Tillery racked up just 3 tackles for loss and didn’t register a single sack. That is not the kind of production anyone expected from Tillery in his sophomore season.
Tillery’s statistics weren’t the only disappointing aspect of his 2016 campaign. His season came to a crashing halt in the season finale against USC. Tillery was pulled from the game by head coach Brian Kelly after being called for a personal foul penalty after stomping on the leg of a USC lineman Zack Banner. That came just a few plays after it looked like Tillery nudged the head of running back Aca’Cedric Ware following a big hit Nicco Fertita. That one wasn’t called but every replay shown made it look like a dirty play.
That's not going to help someone who just suffered a brain injury, Notre Dame pic.twitter.com/eQmt1BU47y
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 26, 2016
Tillery’s antics against USC weren’t the first time he felt the wrath of Brian Kelly. He was suspended for the 2016 Fiesta Bowl after violating team rules and being sent home early. Now a junior, Notre Dame needs Tillery to be a leader on the defensive line but to date his actions haven’t shown that is a role he is ready for.
There has also been some talk of Tillery not having football atop his priority list. Add it all up and there is plenty of reason to doubt whether or not he will take the step forward that some NFL Draft experts think he might take when they project him as a possible early NFL departure.
Reason for Optimism
While Tillery hasn’t been a regular visitor to the oppositions’ backfields over the last two seasons, he has still started in and played a lot of football games for Notre Dame the past two seasons. And, even though Tillery’s tackles for loss and sacks didn’t jump up like many expected last year, his tackle total did see a big jump. As a freshman, Tillery collected just 12 tackles but saw that jump to 37 last year.
A new defensive scheme under Mike Elko’s guidance could be just what the doctor ordered for Tillery to take a big step forward this fall. Elko’s defense is much simpler than whatever the hell it was Brian Vangorder was trying to run for the last three years before he was fired in the middle of last season.
There is also the undeniable talent that Tillery possesses. There’s a reason that Tillery jumped into the starting lineup when Jones went down in 2015. There’s a reason he stood out as much as he did that first spring. He’s got talent. The big question that remains will be whether or not he’s able to reach his full potential. If he doesn’t do it this year, it will be safe to wonder if he ever will.
Jerry Tillery’s 2017 Season Outlook
While some NFL Draft experts have pegged Tillery a potential early departure, they are doing so largely based on Tillery’s presence in the lineup and assuming he’ll make a big jump this year. While I think we’ll see increased production from Tillery thanks in large part to Elko’s defense, I just don’t see it being nearly enough for an early Draft departure to even be seriously considered.
The fact that people are even predicting Tillery as a possible 2018 NFL Draft pick is surprising to me given he’s had just five total TFL in his career to this point. If I am wrong, then things will have gone very good for Notre Dame in 2017. If Jerry Tillery has the kind of season that makes him a high draft pick in 2018, Mike Elko will be the Broyles Award Winner as the top assistant coach in the country because Notre Dame’s defense will have had a hell of a turnaround season.
Tillery’s projection as a potential 2018 early entrant reminds me a bit of when the same was said of Corey Robinson a few years ago. And, in many ways, Robinson and Tillery are similar student athletes for Notre Dame. Look for Tillery to take a step forward this fall, but everything we’ve seen out of him to date suggests he has a lot of growing to do on and off the field before he’s ready to fully realize his talent.
I expect Tillery to have a junior campaign similar to that of Sheldon Day a few years ago and end up with around 8 or 9 tackles for loss and something like 3 sacks. If he does that, he’ll be in line for the kind of senior season that will make him a potential high draft pick.