Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery riding a wave of improvement

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He may have been the tallest surfer on the Oahu beaches last May, and by his own estimation a better-than-average one.

“When in Hawaii, do as the Islanders do,” the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Jerry Tillery said of the whim that quickly became a skill.

Tillery also dabbled in politics, during the spring semester. He managed the campaign of someone running against then-Irish football teammate Corey Robinson for Notre Dame student body president.

Tillery, whose candidate lost to Robinson, will take a class on the Presidential election this semester, a year after telling the media that he may run for that office someday after football ends.

The Shreveport, La., product occasionally ponders what his life would have been like had he stayed on the offensive side of the ball and been in O-Line coach Harry Hiestand’s deep stable of talent. In fact, the deep thinker, world traveler, Showtime cult hero has a mind that seemingly never sleeps.

But between a trying spring and preseason training camp, the man tugged in so many directions by his multi-faceted off-the-field interests funneled his attention increasingly toward football, specifically a position change from nose guard to defensive tackle.

It’s definitely showing.

ND head coach Brian Kelly recently singled out the sophomore as one of the most improved players on the Irish defense.

“Jerry is playing so much more physical,” Kelly said. “At times he was a little bit finesse last year.”

And in the spring, he was downright lost at times, trying to step in for former standout Sheldon Day, now a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Tillery’s August ascendance is another positive trend on a long list of summer maybes and ifs that must be answered for the Irish defense to truly take a meaningful step forward in 2016. Ninth-ranked ND opens the season Sept. 4 at Texas.

Day, with whom Tillery still keeps in regular contact, was a catalyst. So was defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who Tillery said pushed through improvements through numerous talks and joint film sessions.

“He sees the potential that I have,” Tillery said, “but that means nothing if you don’t work toward it and realize it. That was the challenge — to work hard and realize the greatness that you can become.”

Tillery garnered 12 tackles over 12 games that included three starts in 2015, while tag-teaming at nose guard with Daniel Cage. Grad senior Jarron Jones, the projected starter at that position last season, is back from a knee injury and surging as well.

Collectively, the Irish defensive line appears deeper and more adept at generating a pass rush than the 2015 version. For Tillery’s part in that, it’s been a deep dive into studying and implementing technique.

“You can’t rely on what you can do naturally,” he said. “Big, strong — that doesn’t really work at this level. You just have to work your technique and be technique-driven in order to be great.”

Tillery enrolled early as a freshman and wowed the coaches with a strong spring in 2015, but faded in the fall. He collected 12 tackles in his freshman season, but only four over the final eight games.

“No doubt,” Tillery said when asked if he hit a wall. “We play a long season. I told the freshmen, ‘Just wait. There’s a camp wall. There’s a lot of walls you have to break through in order to be successful in this game.’

“Everyone hits the wall. It’s how you get through it and how you adjust. That’s what makes a difference. There are still walls this year. I think they will be fewer and further in between, because I have more experience and I think I’ve gotten a lot better.

“I think I’ll be better adjusted and better positioned to break through.”

Hayes on the mend

Starting defensive end Jay Hayes has missed roughly a week of practice with what Kelly calls a high ankle sprain.

“That's generally seven to ten days (to recover),” the coach said, “but we'll take it each day. We feel good that we'll have him ready for the Texas game.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly counts defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) as one of the team's most improved players from last season. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)