Notre Dame needed a bit of good news after a week and a half span in which they lost their defensive coordinator to A&M in a money grab, lost one of the best offensive line coaches in the game to the NFL, and reportedly will have to fit off Alabama to keep its hot shot young offensive coordinator. They got it on Monday night when both Jerry Tillery and Tevon Coney announced they would be returning for their senior seasons in 2018.
Notre Dame needed this news. Not just to reverse all the bad news that has occured since the miraculous ending to the Citrus Bowl either. The Irish needed this because with Tillery and Coney back in 2018, the Irish defense has a chance to be really, really good in 2018 even with a new defensive coordinator in Clark Lea.
Brian Kelly was excited about the return of his defensive stalwarts. Notre Dame’s head coach released the following statement.
“We talk about the mission everyday: graduate our players and win a national championship. While I’m excited to have Jerry and Te’von return from a football standpoint, I’m proud that they both believe in this mission and value the significance of the ND degree.”
Tevon Coney was an absolute monster over the 2nd half of the season and in the Citrus Bowl when he was a one man wrecking crew. Coney wracked up 17 tackles against LSU alone as he lead Notre Dame in tackles with 116 on the season. And he wasn’t even a full time starter this season. Even in limited action though, he had the best season of any Irish linebacker since Manti Te’o’s historic run in 2012.
Tillery didn’t have quite as monster of a season, but by the end of 2017, he was playing some really good football on the interior of the Irish defensive line. Tillery ended the season with 56 tackles and lead Notre Dame with 4.5 tackles for loss and trailed only Coney in tackles for loss with 9.0. Tillery also haad almost twice as many QB hurries this year with 11. The next closest player for the Irish had 6.
Returning for their senior seasons was not a sure thing for either. Coney’s rapid ascension at the end of the year and Tillery’s unique blend of size and athleticism gave them an opportunity to be drafted higher than perhaps their current game skills would project them to be. Both reportedly received stay in school grades – but so did Equanimeous St. Brown and Josh Adams who already left for the NFL this off-season. Still, in today’s NFL with the smaller rookie contracts and rush to getting to the second contract, many juniors who may have been on the fence in the past have been rolling the dice more and more.
Luckily for Notre Dame, Tillery and Coney decided to bet on themselves and take their chances with a senior season. With both in the lineup for 2018, the Irish defense could be the best its been since the 2012 unit. The momentum built in the first year under Mike Elko should be able to be maintained under Clark Lea who knows the system inside and out after serving as an understudy to Elko at Bowling Green, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame last fall.
Had Tillery left for the NFL, Notre Dame’s defensive line depth would have been hit hard on the inside – especially with the expected departure of Elijah Taylor to transfer. Notre Dame would likely have been starting two true sophomores inside had Tillery left. Depth will still be an issue to solve though as Notre Dame will need either senior Brandon Tiassum or Micah Dew Treadway to finally be ready for a prime reserve role or for incoming freshman Jayson Ademilola to be ready to play just as Kurt Hinish and Myron Taglovailoa-Amosa were in 2017.
With Tillery back though, Notre Dame has a potential star to anchor the defensive line and help mentor the young the Irish have inside. It’s rare for a nose tackle to lead a team in pressures, but Tillery did it. If he can improve this off-season anywhere close to the same amount he improved last year, we will be talking about Tillery as a very high draft pick next fall.
Tillery’s return is also big for the production of Tevon Coney now that he is back as well. Coney was a tackling machine this fall and to repeat that, he needs a strong line in front of him demanding double teams and creating space for him to wreck havoc. Coney played mostly the BUCK position but in 2018, it seems likely that Coney moves over to the MIKE to replace Nyles Morgan. Coney has the size to play the position – especially with another offseason under Matt Balis – and he could become a star at the position.
This defense is designed for the MIKE to be the star essentially. Elko’s defenses – whose linebackers were coached by Lea in 2016 – were anchored by star MIKE’s. Coney is the best candidate to play that position for Notre Dame in 2018. Had he left, Notre Dame’s starting linebacker trio would have been a bit of a reason for concern. With him back, Notre Dame still has some question at the BUCK. Do they try and bulk up Tranquill a bit more and move him from ROVER to BUCK and then let a battle ensue in spring and fall for the ROVER? A linebacking corps of Coney, Tranquill, and say rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah would be the most athletic set of backers perhaps in Irish history.
Notre Dame still has some questions to answer on defense between now and September but they couldn’t have asked for any better answers to the NFL decisions they faced on defense this offseason. With Coney and Tillery announcing their returns Monday and Tranquill his return back in December. the Irish have the makings of the kind of defense that can carry it a long way in 2018. It’s too bad Mike Elko decided to take a little extra cash at A&M, he is going to miss out on coaching one heck of a defense next fall.