Jerry Tillery letting his actions speak this season at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A little more than eight months after Jerry Tillery’s uneven sophomore season ended in a puff of controversy, the Notre Dame junior nose guard finally had a chance to own it on Wednesday.

Yet, his first eight practices of training camp, and those of his Irish teammates collectively on the defensive side of the ball, somehow managed to minimize Tillery’s first public comments since the post-USC-game Twitter firestorm last November.

Or at least ND head coach Brian Kelly’s assessment of those practices.

“If your offense is way ahead of your defense all the time in practice, that’s a scary place to be as a head coach,” Kelly said Wednesday, following the first Irish training camp session this preseason staged on campus after the first seven played out in Culver, Ind.

“And so for the first time in several years, our defense is ahead of our offense. It’s a good feeling to have.”

Especially if that’s still his view of reality on, say, Sept. 9, when Georgia and its 1-2 punch of elite running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, visit Notre Dame Stadium.

Tillery’s purported separation from a flash/fade pattern in 2016 and Kelly’s surprise declaration Wednesday about his defense as a whole are hardly isolated.

For the latter to happen and endure, Tillery’s game had to grow up, both in terms of physical evolution and emotionally the way he handled his frustrations.

The latter hung over the 6-foot-7, 306-pound Shreveport, La., product this offseason after he was involved in two separate incidents in ND’s 45-27 loss in the season finale at USC on Nov. 26. Both were out of character from the way he had handled himself for most of his first two seasons at Notre Dame.

Tillery, with his foot, appeared to nudge the head of running back Aca'Cedric Ware, who momentarily lay motionless a hard hit by Irish safety Nicco Fertitta.

Later, Tillery stomped on the ankle of offensive tackle Zach Banner following USC's final touchdown of the game. Tillery was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his interaction with Banner, and Kelly pulled him from the game.

Social media reaction was harsh, with even former Notre Dame players condemning Tillery’s actions. Tillery did eventually apologize to both USC players via Twitter, and both accepted his apology via Twitter.

“We took that situation extremely serious and took the steps to make sure that he was held accountable for what we felt was behavior unacceptable,” Kelly said on July 31, at the outset of training camp. “He was asked to fulfill counseling and community service, and he did that.

“And because of that, he has covered himself relative to the sanctions we've put forth. So there won't be a suspension of any kind relative to playing time.”

Tillery’s response Wednesday to what happened last November came off a little scripted every time he was posed with a different variation of the USC line of questioning.

“I made a mistake, which I regret, and it’s something I’ve apologized for,” he said. “It’s something I’m not going to let define me as a person or a player. We’re moving on from that and we’re focused on honing our skills here and playing Temple.”

Temple is Notre Dame’s opponent in the Sept. 2 season opener at newly renovated and reconfigured Notre Dame Stadium.

Tillery’s ensuing actions will ultimately speak louder than his explanation anyway. And the ones he took this summer were impressive.

Those included seeking out senior offensive guard Quenton Nelson as a training partner. At 6-5 and 330, Nelson is ND’s most powerfully built player and also its most likely preseason All-American.

“We were out there every day challenging each other,” Tillery said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better working with him, and I think he can get better from what I can do.”

And in the weight room?

“He’s pushing big weights,” Tillery said, “so it encourages me to step up my numbers.”

And in Kelly’s eyes, it’s translating to the field.

“He obviously had the ability to move well, had some athleticism,” Kelly said of Tillery, “but he didn’t have that suddenness, that explosive strength. Now we’ve added that strength component.”

When Tillery verbally committed to Notre Dame early in the 2015 recruiting cycle, he was a highly sought-after offensive lineman. But shortly before enrolling early at ND, in January of 2015, he professed he’d like to play defense. And at that time the path to playing time was less impeded on the defensive line.

He was a spring surprise in his first semester on campus and went on to play in 12 games with three starts in a time share at nose guard. But he faded over the season, collecting just four of his 12 tackles in the final eight games for the Irish in 2015.

It was more of the same in 2016, just with bigger numbers overall. Switching to defensive tackle, Tillery started 11 games and played in 12, but only 13 of his 37 season tackles came in the last half of the season.

Now he’s back at nose guard and without much of a safety net.

Senior Daniel Cage, a part-time starter in 2015 and 2016, is going to sit out 2017 for health reasons and may or may not return in 2018. Not one of Tillery’s four backups — senior Pete Mokwuah, junior Brandon Tiassum and freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell — have played a meaningful down in college.

The latter three haven’t even played an unmeaningful down. Mokwuah leads them with one career tackle. But Hinish has surged into contention to be the top backup.

“Other guys look up to me,” Tillery said, “and that’s something that motivates me to come each day and work hard.”

His dreams have always been big. As a freshman, Tillery claimed to want to eventually end up as a doctor or as the president of the United States, though he didn’t specify whether that was to occur all at once. He’s settled into a business track and spent three weeks in May interning at an investment firm in Dublin, Ireland.

He doesn’t lack for confidence on or off the field, just a track record of consistency, which Kelly is convinced is arriving.

“I can play anywhere on the defensive line,” Tillery said. “I think I have the skills and the skill set to do that. Wherever my coaches think I can best help the team and make plays, that’s where I’m going to put my focus and attack every day and get better.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) holds off Michigan State’s Miguel Machado (55) during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN