Notebook: Jerry Tillery's move tops ND signing day intrigue

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most intriguing thread on Brian Kelly’s sixth National Signing Day as head football coach at Notre Dame came from a recruit who has already been on campus for three weeks and some change.

Not that there weren’t plenty of salivating and superlatives over and about the 24-man class the Irish coaching staff put the finishing touches on Wednesday with the signings of running back Dexter Williams of Orlando, Fla., and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown of Anaheim, Calif.

But the biggest tremors on the day came from a Brady Hoke-to-ND report that fizzled, updates on suspended players Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell, where and if a Blue-Gold Game will be held, another quantum leap in the recovery of injured linebacker Jarrett Grace, the buzz around another assistant coach leaving and the redirected career path of early enrolled freshman Jerry Tillery.

Tillery — the tallest (6-foot-6) and most substantial (310 pounds) member of an Irish class that finished 11th nationally per Rivals.com, 13th per 247Sports and eighth per CBS Sports Network analyst Tom Lemming —has a chance to make a big impact at a position at which he wasn’t initially recruited.

The consensus top 10 offensive tackle prospect nationally revealed roughly a month ago that he’d start his Irish career on the defensive line. On Wednesday Kelly shed some light on why Tillery shifted away from a small-but-talented group of offensive tackles to a mob of largely unproven interior defensive linemen.

It started with recommendations from former LSU standout D-lineman and Tillery’s head coach at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., Byron Dawson, and Evangel assistant Pete Jenkins, a 73-year-old defensive line savant with extensive experience at the NFL and collegiate levels, most recently at USC.

“That kind of convinced us that we needed to take a look at him on the other side of the ball,” Kelly said. “We’re in a great situation on the offensive line. (Starting nose guard) Jaron Jones is not going to be able to compete for us in the spring because of foot surgery. Let’s give him a shot and take a look at him on defense and see how he looks.

“If he turns out to be the kind of player they believe he can be, that’s a win-win situation for us.”

On second thought

Considered the jewel of the ND recruiting class by many analysts, quarterback Brandon Wimbush is Exhibit A on why fans, media and even coaches shouldn’t get too wrapped up in junior-year star ratings and film.

Wimbush was an afterthought for Kelly after his first year as a starter his junior year at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, and not just because eventual Alabama signee Blake Barnett was committed to the Irish at the time.

“He was a late developer,” Kelly said of the 6-2, 212-pounder. “We felt like his junior film, where he was as a football player, we weren’t ready to commit to him. And so, that’s why, at that point in his development, we weren’t recruiting him.

“Then his senior year, after we watched him in the first couple of games, he was a different player. He was a lot more poised and confident.

“He had really, in our opinion, changed everything over the summer in terms of his mechanics and footwork. It just changed our evaluation of him and the way he presented himself, so we made a change in the way we perceived him and decided to offer him.”

Safety Dance continues

The Irish missed on the chance to add a third safety to the class Wednesday, with Nathan Meadors of San Bernadino, Calif., selecting UCLA over the Irish and Arrington Farrar of College Park, Ga., opting for Wisconsin over ND.

Notre Dame returns just three safeties for certain from its 2014 squad and one of those, freshman Drue Tranquill, is coming back from major knee surgery.

The surprise revealed Wednesday is that junior Nicky Baratti is in play after three shoulder surgeries that wiped out his entire 2013 season and most of 2014. Kelly said Baratti will practice in the spring, though he won’t have contact.

The coach did acknowledge that he’s ready to move one or two players to build more depth at the position and added that would likely come from the linebacker corps. That would hint at former safeties John Turner and James Onwualu, though Kelly declined to name names until he has the chance to speak to the players directly.

Status update

Suspended Notre Dame football players KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams both still intend to return to Notre Dame in June and finish what they started.

One of them has a more difficult road back, though, to make that happen.

“The expectations are that they are both going to be back,” Kelly said Wednesday.

Both Russell and Williams were projected as starters for the 2014 season when they were pulled from the roster in August as part of the school’s academic dishonesty investigation. Backup linebacker Kendall Moore and starting wide receiver DaVaris Daniels joined them in limbo on Aug. 15.

Backup safety Eilar Hardy was added to the probe on Aug. 29.

“KeiVarae is in school at the University of Washington, and he’s taking classes,” Kelly said, “classes that have been cleared for transfer here to Notre Dame.

“He’s on track to get the necessary hours to meet degree-completion requirements. He’s on a plan of action to meet all the necessary requirements for eligibility.

“Ishaq has a higher bar to meet, but he is trying to work through that as well. Ishaq’s is a much more complicated situation.”

Hardy recently announced he’ll be taking his fifth year of eligibility at Bowling Green. He is the only one of the five who returned to play in 2014. He participated in ND’s final five games of the season, making nine tackles.

Daniels elected to jump into the 2015 NFL Draft pool and leave his final season of eligibility behind. Moore was out of eligibility and hopes to get an NFL shot as well.

Magic number is 85

The most concrete statements Kelly made about being temporarily well over the NCAA-mandated scholarship limit of 85 is that he is in no hurry to get there, that competition will drive many of the roster decisions and that he may actually add a player or two via grad school-style transfer, a la Cody Riggs from Florida, last year.

The Irish don’t have to reach 85 until the first day of training camp, in August.

Another possible addition, who was thought by some to be moving in the medical hardship direction, is senior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, who hasn’t played in a game since breaking his right leg in four places Oct. 5, 2013 against Arizona State.

“He vertical jumped 28½ inches (Tuesday),” Kelly said. “He’s back in the mix.”

Out of the mix is offensive lineman Conor Hanratty, who could have been a candidate for a fifth year but instead will retire due to injuries.

LaFleur to Falcons?

Add quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur to the short list of ND assistants apparently headed to new opportunities elsewhere.

Multiple reports have the first-year Irish QBs coach jumping back to the NFL and coaching quarterbacks with the Atlanta Falcons. Earlier this week defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks was reported to be headed to Oklahoma.

Kelly deferred comment on either coaches’ situation as to not take away from the splash of National Signing Day.

Do the Hoke-y Pokey

The parade of trite commitment/signing ceremonies Wednesday morning was interrupted by a jaw-dropping report that deposed former Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke was poised to join the Notre Dame coaching staff.

The idea wasn’t completely far-fetched, but the purported end result sure turned out to be. Hoke, part of CBS Sports Network’s National Signing Day coverage, quickly shot down the trending news.

ND head coach Brian Kelly also put his relationship with Hoke in perspective.

“Brady and I were in Fort Worth together for ESPN (in early January),” Kelly said, “and we’re both represented by the same agent, Trace Armstrong from CAA.

“We were having a Coke after a couple of the shows that we had done together, and we just started talking about coaching again. I have a lot of respect for Brady and just in normal conversation, I said, ‘What are you going to do? I’d love to have you on my staff.’

“And no jobs were ever offered or accepted, and it was my impression all along that he was going to travel with his wife and get out and see other programs. So I was never led to believe that he was ever going to take a job on the staff.

“But if he was ever interested, I would certainly consider him. I think he’s a phenomenal football coach. I’ve seen him coach positionally and as a head coach, but nothing was ever offered or accepted.

“Just one of those things where maybe there was somebody at the bar that was listening to us and came up with their own scoop or story? Who knows?”

Blue-Gold Game intrigue

Kelly confirmed Wednesday that there will be an 86th-annual Blue-Gold Game, but its location and format are both still murky.

Notre Dame Stadium’s Campus Crossroads expansion/renovation project has that facility of out play.

“We’ve decided to do an Arena League (game) at the IceBox,” Kelly said with a laugh, referring to a local ice hockey facility. “We’re going to charge $50, plus you get a cash-draw ticket.”

In all seriousness, he said the preference was to keep the game on campus rather than to move it to a venue like Chicago’s Soldier Field or Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, and he is confident that will happen.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Early enrollee Jerry Tillery, here working out last summer at an ND camp, won't play for Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (right) after all, at least not right away. He'll start his career on defense. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

How Notre Dame’s recruiting class finished in the final national rankings:

Rivals     11th

Scout     7th

247Sports     13th

Lemming     8th

ESPN     13th