Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery focused on continued evolution

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jerry Tillery is the first player in the room. He is unmistakable — a six-foot, seven-inch mountain draped in a Notre Dame football shirt.

The sophomore greets a hoard of waiting reporters and folds his massive frame into a cushy theater seat inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex; his evenly distributed 310 pounds sink into the cushion. Journalists circle him, a parade of smaller moons orbiting a larger planet.

Tillery’s presence can’t be missed, but his absence is just as glaring.

On New Year’s Day, when Notre Dame met reigning national champion Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Tillery was an unexpected scratch from the defensive line rotation. After contributing in the first 12 games of his freshman season, he was suspended for the finale.

Last week, he offered a lesson — not an explanation or excuse.

“It’s a privilege to play on this team,” Tillery explained, openly addressing his suspension. “When you break rules, that’s something that gets taken away. I know how lucky we are to be here. I’m not perfect. This definitely proves that if you’re given a lot, it can be taken away.

“I think I’ve learned from this situation. I’ve gotten better from it. I’ve addressed it with my team, my teammates, coaches, parents, the Lord — everybody. It’s behind me now. It’s something I’ve learned from, and we’re moving forward.”

Indeed, with more than a week of spring practice behind them, the Irish are moving forward with faces new and old. Two-time captain and unquestioned defensive line leader Sheldon Day is gone. His 42 career starts, 141 tackles and 32 tackles for loss go with him, leaving a seismic crater in its wake.

Who will step forward to fill the sudden void?

Nose tackle Jarron Jones returns on the interior of the defensive line for a fifth and final season, after a torn MCL claimed his first 12 games of 2015. Daniel Cage is back after cracking the rotation in his sophomore year. Micah Dew-Treadway, John Montelus, Elijah Taylor, Pete Mokwuah and Brandon Tiassum are all angling for available reps, with no tangible game experience among them.

Then, there’s Tillery. The rising star of spring 2015 played in 12 games in his freshman season, contributing 12 tackles with two tackles for loss and one sack. For now, he’s slated to start at defensive tackle — Day’s old home — beside the returning Jones.

Next fall, Notre Dame can’t afford further absences.

“I think we’re in a good position right now,” Tillery said. “(There has been) a couple changes. Our leader, Sheldon Day, he’s obviously not with us anymore. But that’s the whole thing. We reload. We regroup.

“That’s what the spring’s for — to get better as a team. We know we have a long way to go, but we’re in a good position.”

Despite outward appearances, Tillery is more than his frame — than his position. He looks like an athlete, moves like an athlete, travels like an explorer and studies like a scholar. He served as the campaign manager for friends running for student body president last winter, and has openly mulled the possibility of eventually becoming a doctor.

Last summer, Tillery ventured to South Africa on a study-abroad trip with his fellow students. During the bye week last fall, he visited Ireland. Prior to the start of practice this spring, he trekked with his godmother through Germany, France and Poland.

Jerry Tillery is doing spring break right.

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) March 9, 2016

This summer, he plans to participate in another study abroad program — this one destined to take place in Jerusalem.

“I’m trying to take full advantage of this experience,” Tillery said with a grin. “I know there’s a lot to offer.”

Notre Dame has plenty to offer Tillery, and vice versa. The Shreveport, La., native’s frame and flexibility make him a potential mismatch on the defensive line, as well as a crucial piece to the Irish puzzle, moving forward.

He has many interests, but once spring began, football held his focus.

“He’s a great competitor and he takes what he does very seriously,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We just have to keep him focused and he will come back (strong). He is not a guy prone to slipping in terms of his work ethic in what he does. I don’t see any slip from Jerry at all.”

His only slip, in his first year on campus, led to Tillery’s suspension.

Now the fleet-footed lineman, vigorous tourist and possible physician is working harder than ever to make his presence felt in the fall.

“I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. I know I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Tillery said. “It’s something we’ve moved past. We get better for the mistakes that we make, and that’s what we are doing.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, left, during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, left, during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN