Notre Dame frosh Jerry Tillery has super-sized ambitions on, off field

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jerry Tillery’s ambition dwarfs everything else about the Notre Dame football prodigy, including a freakishly lithe but ever-imposing 6-foot-7, 305-pound frame.

And his apparently sizeable tolerance for being on the receiving end of a steady barrage of pranks/hazing from his Irish teammates. … Like being told that he needed to take his helmet into the port-a-potty when nature called during a recent practice at the LaBar complex.

“It’s crazy, right?” said the freshman from Shreveport, La., who credits his three bullying, older sisters with creating the right temperament to survive the constant teasing at ND.

Some would say not as crazy as tracking his dream to be a doctor while his burgeoning football future unfolds.

“Why can’t you do both?” he said more reprovingly than rhetorically. “Plenty of people have done it before me. I don’t think I’m the first one with those aspirations. I’m handling the coursework, and I’m doing pretty well on the field. Why can’t I have both?”

Welcome to Jerry Tillery’s world. Or “Terry Jillery” as mentor/fellow defensive lineman Sheldon Day would have it.

The good-natured mocking moniker has become so widespread that the particular reference roughly fills up four pages of hits on a Google search.

“It was pretty annoying in the beginning, but honestly I don’t care now,” he said. “They enjoy it, so why am I going to end their fun?”

Not that he couldn’t. Everything seemingly that he sets his mind to these days seems to come rushing toward him.

Like participating in a couple of triathlons this past summer with his godmother, as if it were as commonplace as going for a stroll.

Or, for instance, when he started to have a hankering about playing defense just before enrolling early at Notre Dame in January. That after being rated one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the country and being recruited for that position for well over a year.

And he did so knowing there were many more bodies to climb up and over to find a spot in the two-deeps on the interior of the defensive line than it would have been to be either Ronnie Stanley’s or Mike McGlinchey’s understudy this year.

Yet there he was last Saturday, making his first collegiate start. Against Georgia Tech, the trigonometry of college offenses. And excelling.

He had three tackles and very few technical hiccups in the 30-22 upset of then-No. 14 Georgia Tech. And he did so sort of blazing his own path from a fundamental standpoint.

“Jerry’s unique,” Day said. “You know, he does things Jerry’s way, and so it’s always a push-pull with Jerry. So the cut block, you tell him about the cut block, and he’ll play it this way. And that might not work for us, but it works for Jerry.

“Jerry’s body does some unique things, so that’s why we let Jerry get away with a lot of things.”

He’ll be back in a tag-team this Saturday with sophomore Daniel Cage, whose summer/fall training camp rise was every bit as dramatic as Tillery’s was in the spring.

They’ve combined for 12 tackles this season while filling the hole created when senior incumbent Jarron Jones was lost for the season in mid-August with a torn knee (MCL) ligament.

Agility, specifically being able to get up quickly after being cut blocked, played to Tillery’s strength last week. The more conventional, actually pass-happy offense, UMass brings to Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday puts the two nose guards on more even footing.

The matchup between No. 6 Notre Dame (3-0) and the Minutemen (0-2), the second-ever Mid-American Conference clash to show up on an Irish schedule, is set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff (NBC-TV).

“We’re focused on UMass. We’ve got UMass this week,” Tillery spouted when a media member tried to slip in a question about 11th-ranked Clemson, which the Irish play on the road the following Saturday.

Not that he had to be coached to do so. Tillery relishes having a world view and a confident voice to express how he feels he fits in it. He embraces the academic opportunities instead of tolerating them.

“I focus on my studies as much as football, so it’s all a balance for me.”

A balance he’s winning so far with the biggest bumps in the road being the ones his teammates good-naturedly put in front of him.

“He’s always good for a laugh or something,” safety and captain Matthias Farley said. “His facial expressions are hilarious. He also works his tail off and he wants to be really good. It’s that, coupled with an incredible work ethic and drive, that makes him a lot of fun to play with and a lot of fun to be around on and off the field.

“He’s pushing guys around him to be better and he’s not satisfied with being mediocre whatsoever. So I think that brings everyone else up as well.”

Best lines, part 1

DeShone Kizer won his Notre Dame starting debut Saturday, then delivered Emmy-quality material during Showtime’s “A Season With Notre Dame Football” series on Tuesday night.

The Showtime cameras eavesdropped on a powerful conversation between the redshirt freshman quarterback and Fighting Irish Digital Media’s Jac Collinsworth in which Kizer opened up about his climb into the spotlight and the frustration he felt emerging from spring practice as ND’s No 3 quarterback option.

“I never expected all this stuff to happen the way it is … I’m expected to go from nothing to everything in three days. There’s no transition at all. It’s just — coach Kelly looks at me differently. He just expects me to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. Everyone expects it.

“No one really understands that. … I’m trying to grab a snack at (LaFortune Student Center) at night. All of a sudden I have this pressure. There’s all this obligation that you have as a Notre Dame quarterback. I just never really prepared myself for, I guess.

“Going into summer I literally hit rock bottom. Rock bottom. I mean, I wasn’t throwing the ball well. I was the third-string quarterback. Am I really even playing the right sport? I was thinking to myself, ‘I could be out there throwing the ball 93, 94 miles per hour. Why not just play baseball?’ I was contemplating everything.

“I went 1-for-5 in the spring game. Heck, I got a safety. What dual-threat quarterback goes backwards and gets tackled in the end zone? You know? I was so down.

“Finally, I was like, ‘Look, there’s no more redshirt year. There’s no more Everett Golson versus Malik Zaire. There was nothing. The only thing stopping me from playing was myself every time.

“Malik was named the starter over the summer. The kid worked his tail off to earn that starting spot. And that picked me up and really elevated my level, because I think I deserved to play.

So I’m thinking in my head, ‘If I deserve to play. I need to play like he does. I need to be able to throw the ball, run the ball, hold the ball, catch the ball like Malik does.’ The man really completely turned himself into almost a role model for me.”

Best lines, part II

For the second time in three weeks, NotreDame’s offensive line made the honor roll for the Joe Moore Award.

In its inaugural year, the Joe Moore Award will be given at season’s end to the top offensive line in the country. Other schools named to this week’s honor roll were Georgia, Iowa, LSU, Navy, North Carolina and Penn State.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame celebrates Saturday's escape at Virginia.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ