Noie: Having lived and learned, Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery ready to be better

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Mistakes were made – one after another after another – to a point where everyone started to wonder.

Exactly who was Jerry Tillery?

Was he the happy-go-lucky Notre Dame defensive lineman with the gotta-see-the-world attitude? Or was he the troubled teen who struggled to adjust to life away from home for the first time who couldn’t get out of his own way? The one sent home from the 2016 Fiesta Bowl for the always vague “violation of team rules.” The one who was bad-mouthed after two bad after-the-whistle incidents against USC in the 2016 finale.

Who was the real Tillery? That one? The other? How about both.

Part of going away to college, of trading the only life one’s known to pursue another, is about learning to live. How many of us would take back a night or two at that age? Undo what we did? Guilty. Can’t do it. Neither can Tillery. It’s all part of growing up, of finding out who you are. It’s about learning tough life lessons. Hard lessons.

Tillery just happened to learn his on a big stage. Comes with the territory. College life – college football — was supposed to be so easy for him after he arrived in 2015. All that potential. All that personality. All that polish. Then the rough stuff surfaced. Tillery became a little less willing to let the world in, a little less a football player and more a cautionary tale.

Not anymore. Now when they talk about Jerry Tillery, it’s about him being on the verge of being someone special this fall. The jersey number (99) remains the same. So does the old-school facemask. The man behind both is different. Because of the bad. Because of the good.

Because of life.

“It’s been great,” Tillery said of his collective college experience. “I’ve had ups and downs and I’ve grown as a person. If you go through life and nothing goes wrong, you can’t learn from that.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Tillery admitted that his freshman year – for all of its good – was bad. Remember how the producers fell hard for him in Showtime’s “A Season With Notre Dame Football?” How his big brother/little brother relationship with former defensive tackle Sheldon Day became a side series? How Tillery was the can’t-miss kid ready to make it big in college football?

Tillery appeared in 12 games with 12 tackles and a sack in 2015. As he looks back on it now, life was TOO good. He had it TOO easy. The rest of his career would be as fun of a ride. His thought process in 2015 was so messed up. Like, I’ve got this.

“I did have that mindset,” he said. “That’s what affected me in terms of when the success kind of waned after my freshman year.”

When Tillery’s career careened down the wrong fork in the college football road, he had no idea how to hit the brakes. To turn around. To ask for help. Not during the 4-8 season in 2016. Not during the incidents that November on the floor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The more the tough stuff surfaced, the darker Tillery’s world.

“I was just confused when things weren’t going the way I wanted,” he said. “I wasn’t the ‘the man’ anymore. Just having to work through that, that’s really affected me in terms of what I see.”

Back to basics

Those first two years, all Tillery could see was the next Saturday on the schedule. Like his sophomore year when Notre Dame opened against Texas. In Austin. At night. Nothing else mattered. Not offseason conditioning. Not preseason camp. Not film study. Only game day. Just get there and everything would be all right.

“That,” Tillery said, “was my only focus.”

That had to change after a sophomore year when he was just kind of average. What Tillery first saw last season and again this spring was the game in a whole new way. Really, for the first time in his collegiate career, he focused on the job of being a college football player, instead of living the life of one.

Tillery worked his craft. He got in a stance at his new three technique position – he played nose tackle his first three seasons – and got better. He listened more to what coach Mike Elston was saying and how ($#@%&@) he said it.

He became more a student. He took every rep in practice seriously. Game seriously. The more Tillery did that, the more impact he had. In a career-high 13 games last season, he set personal bests for solo tackles (25), assists (31), totals (56), tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (a team-high 4.5).

It seemed a perfect time for Tillery to put South Bend and his last year of eligibility in his rear-view mirror and light out for the NFL. Come later this month, he’ll have an undergraduate degree in economics.

“It,” he said, “was a tough decision.”

Was it the right one? Tillery wrestled with that question for a few days while some of the guys he started with — Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown – pursued their pro paths. Tillery returned to campus for the spring semester. Winter conditioning soon would start. Then spring practice. Then summer. Know what? Tillery couldn’t wait.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here. We’re doing this again. Let’s get to it,’” he said. “I was more intentional about everything I’m doing.”

Tillery carried that focus through the spring. New position? New defensive coordinator? New season? Didn’t matter. He looked like the dominant two-way player he was at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La. He couldn’t be stopped. He wouldn’t be stopped. Every rep mattered to Tillery. Every drill was something to focus more on. To be better. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month.

Football again is fun for Tillery because he’s been able to shut out the big-picture noise and focus on the smaller details that matter. It’s no longer about the bright lights and big deals of game day. It’s what happens during the week. In the meeting room. Off the field. Be good in those little areas, and he can be even better when the moment’s big.

Tillery had two tackles, one for loss, and a sack in the Blue-Gold game.

“I’ve never played this well,” he said.

How well?

“He’s virtually unblockable at the three technique for us,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s a very difficult player to play. We’ve put him in a great position from a football standpoint.”

From a personal standpoint, Kelly also sees something different in the 6-foot-6, 299-pounder.

“He’s growing up,” Kelly said. “I think he would tell you that his time here at Notre Dame has been extremely formative for him. It’s been a journey for him.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com (574) 235-6153 Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery wouldn’t trade any of the ups (plenty) or downs (some) of his college career.