The 2018 Notre Dame defense receives a massive boost

Navy running back Josh Brown (28) is hit by Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) during the first half of a game in South Bend this past season. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame linebacker Te'von Coney (4) watches from the bench during the second half of a game against Miami this past season in Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami won 41-8. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly argues a call during the first half of a game against North Carolina State this past season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) bobbles a high snap before fumbling, while Notre Dame defenders Jerry Tillery (99) and Daelin Hayes (9) pursue him during the first half of a game this past season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

To state that Notre Dame can’t bolster its 2018 defense any further before National Signing Day next month would be inaccurate.

The Fighting Irish didn’t add any new players on Monday, but it did alleviate a large degree of angst, as coach Brian Kelly announced on Twitter that two of his best defenders – possibly his best defensive players – are both returning for next season.

Senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and senior linebacker Te’Von Coney are both spurning the temptation of the 2018 NFL Draft and will lead the Irish on their continued quest of improvement that got a reboot a year ago this month.

“We talk about the mission everyday,” Kelly posted on Twitter, “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.”

Academic success is ultra important within the Irish program, as Kelly noted, but so is playing productive football, and Tillery and Coney absolutely did that this season.

Coney didn’t start a game until October 7, but did so in seven of Notre Dame’s last eight games and he was a beast to try and slow.

He led the Irish with 116 total tackles, 13 of which were for a loss. Those numbers were 62 and 1 ½ during his sophomore campaign.

“They got into positions,” former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko said of his unit and its philosophy this past season, “where they felt good about what we were asking them to do, which allowed them to start having success.”

Coney had multiple games in which he made a massive impact, but none more so than the Citrus Bowl win over LSU.

In that game, Coney led the Irish with an astounding 17 tackles, which was the fourth most ever notched by a Notre Dame defender.

He and Tillery were part of a defensive performance in which Kelly praised effusively following the game.

“We fought for every inch,” Kelly said. “(LSU’s) offensive line is outstanding, but we fought for every inch.”

Notre Dame forced LSU to kick – and miss – a field goal after having the ball on 2nd and goal from the Notre Dame one-yard line, as well as held steady on an extremely critical 1st and goal from the Irish 10-yard line with just over 2:00 left in the game, which Notre Dame won 21-17.

That type of exhibition of toughness lacked during the 2016 season, according to Kelly.

“It’s a mentality that we’ve developed within our football program,” Kelly said. “It’s a mentality that we lacked, quite frankly, last year, in that we didn’t fight for every inch.”

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Like Coney, Tillery put together his most successful season to date.

He tripled his tackles for a loss from three to nine this fall, while more than doubling his quarterback hurries (from 5 to 11).

Tillery recorded 56 tackles this season as compared to 37 in 2016.

“Playing the kind of schedule that we did this year,” Kelly said, “with 11 bowl teams, you have to fight for everything. Our kids developed that toughness and that mindset and it was absolutely necessary against LSU.”

Coney joins fifth-year returnee Drue Tranquill in the linebacking corps, which graduated team captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.

Notre Dame will also have at linebacker a number of key reserves in Jamir Jones, Asmar Bilal, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Jonathan Jones.

Tillery will be joined by returning starters Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes along the defensive front, which graduated Jonathon Bonner, who elected not to return for a fifth season. However, experience along the front will also include the return of Julian Okwara, Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Micah Drew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum, Darnell Ewell and Elijah Taylor.

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.