When people learned that Jerry Tillery would be starting his collegiate career on the defensive side of the ball, some pundits scoffed that it was a gimmick by the Notre Dame coaching staff to fend off a late charge from Tillery’s home state LSU. A few weeks into the early enrollee’s career, all indications are its the Notre Dame staff who will get the last laugh.
After eight practices of Spring Football 2015 for Notre Dame, the surprise story has been hands down the meteoric rise of Jerry Tillery. Just three and a half months ago everyone assumed Tillery was headed towards a redshirt season on a stacked Notre Dame offensive line depth chart – even as one of the best prep offensive tackles in the country. Today, Tillery is looking like a lock to not only see the field early in his career, but to see meaningful minutes week one against Texas.
The buzz started early in camp, but last week when Brian Kelly met with the media he stoked the flames. “Far and away the story, is Jerry Tillery,” Kelly said last week. “He’s just a unique player – one that I can’t remember that I’ve coached,” he added.
With Jarron Jones out for spring practice, Tillery has seen the opportunity to show what he is capable of and has done everything he can to seize that opportunity. “He’s running with our first group and continues to impress,” Kelly said almost a week ago.
What has made Tillery standout, has been how advanced he is technically speaking for a true freshman who should be preparing for prom right now. “He just has a unique ability, at such a young age, to use his hands,” according to Kelly.
That unique ability is the product of the coaching he received at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana. “He has had incredible teaching – one of the all-time great defensive line coaches Pete Jenkins. If you research him at all, he’s revered as one of the great ones and he’s has the chance to coach him. You can see it in his ability to use his hands.”
Not all young defensive lineman are able to display the kind of work with their hands that Tillery has shown through the first few practices. “We spend the first year and half trying to get these kids to not drop their head and be overextended. He immediately can shoot his hands and use his size to his advantage.”
We’ve all heard hype of young players in practice before only to never hear from them again, but Kelly even admitted he was hesitant to heap too much praise on the youngster but couldn’t help himself. “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.”
Once Jones is healthy and back in the lineup for fall camp, Notre Dame is going to have one heck of a defensive line on its hands if the early returns on Tillery are even close to accurate. Jones and Sheldon Day give Notre Dame an elite 1-2 punch in the middle while Isaac Rochell is a rising star in his own right at the strong side defensive end position. The weakside still has some question marks, but with a host of candidates, Notre Dame should be deeper than they’ve been in a long time along the defensive front.
The Irish didn’t have such a situation a year ago when the line was held together with bubble gum and duct tape before the season finale against USC.
Tillery has yet to play a down for the Irish, but it is looking more and more likely as though the experiment with Tillery on the defensive line could pay off in a big way for the Irish. Combine Tillery with Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, Jacob Matuska, and Pete Mokwuah and the Irish have a legit three deep on the interior defensive line. Contrast that to the line Notre Dame trotted out in the Collesium last Thanksgiving weekend and it’s hard not to get excited for this defense.