Notre Dame freshman NG Jerry Tillery anticipates debut season

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jerry Tillery stood like a statue with his hands on his hips, staring intensely at a few lonely pins, as if sheer concentration could knock them down.

After another moment’s wait, he grabbed his bowling ball and approached, releasing it and watching dejectedly as it slid past the targeted pins and hopelessly into the gutter. The 6-foot-7, 300-pound behemoth took off, a blur of frustration, speed-walking laterally across several neighboring lanes.

Physically, at least, he was the most noticeable Notre Dame football player at Strikes & Spares Event Center on Sunday morning, a redwood surrounded by shrubs. He understood the day’s event was intended to be more about camaraderie than competition, a chance to mingle with fans while simultaneously raising money for osteosarcoma research. He played the role admirably, high-fiving kids whose heads topped out around his waist and smiling for picture after picture after picture.

And yet, when spare bids fell by the wayside and his score struggled to escape double digits, Tillery’s competitive nature shone through.

“I want to win, but we’ve got some pretty good bowlers in my group, so we’ll see how that turns out,” Tillery said, completely serious, breaking down his odds. “But this is competitive. I want to win at everything I do.”

That was apparent throughout spring practice, when Tillery — an early enrollee at nose tackle — earned regular praise from head coach Brian Kelly, despite the fact that most recruiting analysts projected him as a superior offensive tackle. In fact, Tillery was such a highly touted prospect on the offensive line that Notre Dame associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock admitted last spring that he cried when it was decided that the massive athlete would be switching to the other side of the line.

Soon, if all goes to plan, more tears will be shed by opposing offenses.

“I’m absolutely satisfied (with the decision to play defense),” Tillery said. “It’s definitely what I wanted to do, so I’m glad that it happened.”

Now, heading into his debut season in South Bend, Tillery will battle senior Jarron Jones and sophomore Daniel Cage for reps in the trenches. And all things considered, his multiple transitions — from playing both ways to purely on defense, from high school ball in Shreveport, La., to elite competition at Notre Dame — have been skillfully maneuvered.

“It’s been tough at times, but we take it one day at a time,” Tillery said. “There are good days and there are bad days, but the good days are definitely outnumbering the bad. I’m having a good time. I love Notre Dame, so it’s been a good adjustment for me.”

Luckily, he hasn’t had to do it all on his own. Throughout his first several months in South Bend, Tillery has been afforded the luxury of learning from a host of accomplished veterans, specifically standout defensive tackle Sheldon Day. The rising senior bypassed the 2015 NFL Draft to return for one last run, a decision that has also benefited his future replacements.

“He’s one of the best in the game,” Tillery said. “I’m blessed to be able to learn under him. He has taught me a lot, and I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here. This season is going to be fun.”

Of course, the season will be especially fun if Notre Dame can improve upon the 171.2 rushing yards (74th nationally) and 29.2 points per game (84th) it allowed last season. That’s where Tillery comes in. He’ll certainly have a wealth of talent and veteran leadership surrounding him, but the Evangel Christian Academy alum will be counted on to provide valuable depth that Notre Dame has previously lacked this fall.

As for his personal expectations?

“I just want to do the best I can. That’s all I can do,” Tillery said. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m just going to do the best I can and have a good time.”

And after a Sunday spent knocking down bowling pins, quarterbacks are next.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery (99) during Notre Dame football practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN