Notre Dame defensive force Jerry Tillery has followed a ‘journey’ to greatness

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery (99) on the field during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring game this April in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly speaks with the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend this February. (By Tom Davis of
Navy running back Josh Brown (28) is hit by Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) during the first half of a game last season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

It is not as if Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly would like for all of his players to endure growing pains on and off of the field. In a perfect world, all of the Fighting Irish student-athletes would come in as polished as a Corey Robinson and exit as two-time Irish captain Drue Tranquill will next winter. However, the world isn’t perfect so for every Joe Schmidt or Jaylon Smith, there is a story such as Jerry Tillery’s mixed in, as well.

And that is fine with Kelly as long as the story ends well.

“It’s about growing up,” Kelly said of Tillery this past spring. “I think that he would tell you that his time here at Notre Dame has been extremely formative. He’s learned a lot. He’s made some mistakes. He’s helped our football team. He’s handled himself in the classroom in a positive way. He’s going to have his degree. But I would say that it has been a journey for him.”

The Fighting Irish senior defensive lineman was named to the 2018 Bednarik Award watch list along with Notre Dame linebacker Te’Von Coney earlier this week, which is indicative of how far Tillery’s “journey” has brought him.

Less than 20 months ago, Tillery was a college football pariah following a sudden loss of self-discipline in a rout by USC of the Irish in Los Angeles. He had stomped on a couple of Trojan players in the heat of the action and he paid a price both publicly (by the critics) and privately (by Kelly). However, THAT Jerry Tillery is vastly different than the one that will lead Notre Dame into training camp in just a couple of weeks.

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

Tillery’s growth on the field has been obvious with each passing season. However, he has grown off the field to the point that Kelly put him in a leadership role this off-season during team workouts.

“He’s one of our swat team leaders,” Kelly said. “So he’s been pushed out into a position of leadership, which requires accountability. It’s not like we snapped our fingers and he’s the best captain we’ve ever had or the best leader but he’s working on those (skills) and he’s getting better at it.”

The Fighting Irish coaches also made Tillery adapt to change this spring on the field, as he slid over to a new position along the defensive line.

Kelly explained that moving the 6-foot-7, 300-pound beast of an athlete off-center to the “three-technique” should allow him to reach his true potential.

“So the three really just gives him the ability to be a penetrator,” Kelly said. “The one, you obviously have to anchor a lot more. We want to use his quickness, his ability, his length to create a new line of scrimmage. He’ll be difficult to block at the three.”

He’s been “difficult to block” no matter where he’s played.

After registering a dozen tackles as a freshman, Tillery increased that number to 37 as a sophomore and 56 last fall, which led all of the Notre Dame defensive linemen and was the highest for that position group in three seasons.

“Jerry came back to focus really on what does he need to do both as a leader in our program and somebody that can improve his stock in terms of the NFL,” Kelly said, “and help our football team all at the same time. Not one more important than the other. “We’ve seen tangible signs of his ability to get stronger physically, move better, and he’s in better physical condition. It’s important that he works on his pass rush and he’s been diligent in that respect.”

Tillery had nine tackles for a loss last season to go with 4 ½ sacks and 11 quarterback hurries each of which was a career-best mark.

“I think that it has been a journey, an evolution, a maturity,” Kelly said of Tillery. “But that is what happens here and that is what we hope happens. I think that he is a great example of that.”

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