Analysis: NFL Draft dodgers Tillery and Coney give Notre Dame defense chance to be special

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The separation between a Notre Dame football team that finished just outside the top 10 in the final AP poll, and the two squads that played Jan. 8 for the national championship is easily distinguishable through the proverbial eye test.

Some key metrics more than hint at how profound the separation actually is between Alabama/Georgia and the Irish, and what ND (10-3) needs to do in order to shrink it.

The NFL Draft decisions Monday by Irish juniors Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney are seismic steps in the right direction.

Both players announced Monday that they will return to school and be central figures on newly promoted defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s defense in 2018. Spring semester classes at ND begin on Tuesday.

“We talk about the mission everyday: graduate our players and win a national championship,” Notre Dame ninth-year head coach Brian Kelly posted on his Twitter account, Monday evening. “While I’m excited to have Jerry and Te’von return from a football standpoint, I’m proud that they both believe in this mission and value the significance of the ND degree.”

It’s not that Notre Dame doesn’t have promising prospects at Tillery’s nose guard position and at inside linebacker, where Coney excels. In fact, the Irish have begun to amass quantity and quality in both spots.

But most of the players with the highest projected ceilings at those positions appear to belong to incoming freshmen and sophomores-to-be, players not yet ready to produce at a high and consistent level.

That’s something both of the players who deferred their NFL futures Monday — the deadline for all underclassmen to declare — were able to do for the first time in their careers in 2017.

In fact, both Coney and Tillery catalyzed dramatic spikes in production this past season. Despite starting just seven of ND’s 13 games, Coney recorded 116 tackles in 2017, the most by an Irish player since All-America linebacker Manti Te’o’s 128 in 2011, and 54 more than Coney had in 2016, when he started nine games.

His team-leading 13 tackles for loss were a jump of 11.5 from 2016, and he had three sacks in 2017 after having zero in his career coming into the season. Five QB hurries a fumble recovery and a forced fumble filled out his impressive stat line.

Tillery’s 62 tackles in 2017 were the sixth most on the team and most among the Irish defensive linemen. It was a 25-tackle improvement over 2016. His tackles for loss went from 3.0 to 9.0 and his sacks from zero to a team-leading 4.5.

That’s the most sacks in a season by a Notre Dame interior lineman since Derek Landri amassed 7.0 in 2006. And his team-leading 11 quarterback hurries is the second-most by an Irish interior lineman — behind only Sheldon Day’s 13 in 2015 — since ND began diligently tracking the statistic in 2005.

Both players received return-to-school grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board last month, with “first round” and “second round” comprising the only other outcomes in that process. Running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown received the same assessment, but chose to come out anyway.

They become the 15th and 16th true juniors from Notre Dame to enter the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989.

Only three of the previous 14 went in the first round — Tom Carter and Jerome Bettis in 1993, and Will Fuller in 2016. Only four of the 14 have reported going back to Notre Dame and getting their degrees.

All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson, a senior with a fifth-year option, is also technically considered an early entry, one of more than 100 and counting, nationally. The projected first-rounder, however, will leave with his ND degree.

The 2018 draft will be held April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas.

Coney and Tillery returning to Notre Dame isn’t just a big win for Kelly, it could be a victory for the players as well, particularly financially.

Draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com projects the second or third round as having been the best-case scenario for Tillery in the 2018 draft. In 2019, it could be the first round with expected on-field gains in his senior season.

Coney would go from a day-three pick (rounds 4-7) to a second-day pick (rounds 2-3) with expected improvement.

And that would figure to improve the Irish in at least two of the five key metrics in which national championship teams tend to excel.

National champ Alabama shined in all five this past season: rushing offense (13th nationally), passing efficiency (10th), rush defense (1st), total defense (1st) and turnover margin (5th).

Runner-up Georgia, which edged the Irish (20-19) Sept. 9 at Notre Dame Stadium, was adequate in turnover margin (44th) and strong in all four of the others — 9th in rushing offense, 11th in passing efficiency, 20th in rush defense, 6th in scoring defense.

Notre Dame really excelled in only one — rush offense (7th). ND’s numbers were OK in run defense (51st), total defense (46th) and turnover margin (46th), and troubling in pass efficiency (101st).

And efficiency is how the nation’s No. 1 and 2 teams balanced their offenses. Alabama was 91st in passing offense, its only statistical ranking lower than 60th in any significant category. Georgia was 105th. ND was No. 102.

The most consistent of the five critical common threads is total defense. Of the 20 national champs in the BCS and Playoff eras, only once has a team carried a national total defense ranking lower than 25th (Auburn in 2010). Fifteen times the rating was 10th or better.

Even 15 of the 20 national title game losers had a total defense ranking of at least 25th.

The defensive revival that one-and-done coordinator Mike Elko started and Lea took over earlier this month should continue in 2018 with Monday’s news and some expected upgrades at the safety position.

The Irish return nine starters on defense and five on offense.

"After much prayer, thought and discussion with my loved ones, I knew in my heart this was the best decision for me," Coney posted on his Instagram account, Monday night. "I have a lot of unfinished business at Notre Dame — completing my degree and winning a national championship.

"It has always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL, and with hard work and your continued prayers and support, I know that dream is still in my future. However, I'm also aware of the incredible opportunity that awaits me this season."

Taylor leaves ND program

Junior Elijah Taylor is the latest to move on from a crowded offseason Notre Dame football roster, per a source. It’s unclear if he will seek a transfer to play out his remaining eligibility.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pound reserve defensive tackle would have one season left after sitting out 2019 to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements if he continues to play football.

Taylor played in just three games during his Irish career, all at the tail end of the 2016 season. All three of his career tackles came in what turned out to be his last game, a 45-27 loss at USC on Nov. 26, 2016.

He redshirted as a freshman in 2015 and then missed the entire 2017 season after suffering a Lisfranc fracture to his left foot (arch) on March 10, the second spring practice session.

His impending departure leaves the Irish at 87 scholarships, two above the NCAA limit, with the desire to add three more recruits to its 22-man class before the late signing day on Feb. 7.

Notre Dame linebacker Te'von Coney (4) celebrates a big stop during ND's win over N.C. State, Oct. 28 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)