Inside Jerry Tillery’s journey to redefine his body, mindset, image and Notre Dame legacy
Mike Elston had forgotten to put his phone on silent, so right in the middle of a fantasy — someone else’s fantasy — he hears the ping.
Everyone hears the ping.
Curiosity gets the best of the Notre Dame defensive line coach, and so he looks at the text: “Coach, where are you?”
Elston had been barking, albeit a tamped-down version of his normal decibel level and harsh honesty, at mostly middle-aged faces with stars in their eyes. Before Elston can answer the text, the phone rings.
Notre Dame’s football Fantasy Camp is interrupted a second time.
Senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery is on the other end of the line, sitting in Elston’s office at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
The 6-foot-7, 299-pound senior, fresh off a study-abroad program in Tokyo, Japan, is imploring the coach to come watch film with him on an afternoon in June, when NCAA rules would prohibit such a thing from being a requirement had the desire and the phone call originated with Elston.
This is Elston’s fantasy, merging into his reality. It’s also what a kept promise looks like.
Five months earlier, after Tillery researched with Elston what an early start to an NFL career might look like, the Shreveport, La., product didn’t simply vow to come back for a senior season.
The sometimes-eccentric, sometimes-enigmatic, always-eclectic Tillery pledged to shed the distractions, the indifference, the getting stuck in his own past, the late-season production fades … to redefine.
Redefine his body, redefine his focus, redefine his future — and everything else that came with that.
“Jerry and I have built a great relationship,” said Elston, who incidentally did end up bailing on the Fantasy Campers. “He knows he can trust me. He knows I have his best interest in mind. And if he truly was a first-round draft pick at this point or truly a second-round draft pick and he was going to have secured money, hell then I would have helped him pack his bags.
“I challenged Jerry to make sure that when he comes back, that people aren’t looking at him and wondering, ‘Did he come back for himself or did he come back for the team?’ And he’s all in. Awesome. Awesome. Jerry’s in it for the team.”
Not just with his words, either.
The same week Tillery rerouted Elston’s Fantasy Camp duties, he and the rest of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen were invited to the coach’s house for dinner and to hang out.
Tillery was an hour late.
That’s because he ventured into ND’s weight room for some extra work with Irish director of football performance Matt Balis, and Balis was slow to let go. A sore Tillery loved every minute of it.
Also, that same week, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock spoke to the entire Irish team about the draft and evaluation processes, as part of ND’s 4-for-40 curriculum that the veteran ND players participate in the first two weeks of June each year before the freshmen arrive and summer school starts.
Tillery asked Mayock to linger for a considerable one-on-one conversation, requesting that the analyst show him the holes in Tillery’s game and what he needed to work on in his shift from the nose guard to the defensive tackle position.
“Everything you’re seeing since the end of last season ...,” said Elston, uncharacteristically skipping the conditional tense and going straight to the absolute. “He’s going to be dominant.”
Even when Tillery was in Tokyo in May, completing the final three credits for his undergraduate degree in economics, he dragged departing ND wide receiver C.J. Sanders (SMU) and two Irish swimmers to Keio University and the Tokyo American Club for daily workouts.
That’s not to mention the more informal workout of trying to squeeze his oversized frame onto Tokyo’s notoriously overstuffed subway trains during rush hour.
“There’s actually a technique to force yourself on there,” he said with a big grin. “I learned to use it. I made due.”
After two uneven seasons, Tillery actually more than made due on the football field in 2017, the first season he and Elston had worked together (Elston was the Irish linebackers coach when Tillery arrived).
His 4½ sacks in 2017 not only led the team, they were the most put up by an Irish interior defensive lineman in a single season since Derek Landri’s seven in 2006. Tillery’s 56 tackles were almost double the total of ND’s second-most productive defensive linemen last season (Daelin Hayes and Jonathan Bonner, each with 30).
Across the board, Tillery’s 2017 stat line — which included a team-high 11 QB hurries, nine tackles for loss and a forced fumble — was slightly superior to the one Louis Nix put up for the Irish as a member of the vaunted 2012 ND defense (50 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 3 QB hurries, a forced fumble).
That version of Nix, a big step up from the oft-injured 2013 iteration, is the standard of nose guard play in the Kelly Era at Notre Dame. He’s also the only Notre Dame interior defensive lineman to be drafted higher than the fifth round in the past 10 drafts (third round in 2014).
In Tillery’s case, the 2017 statistical surge, strangely, only muddled who he was to the outside world.
There was a suspension from the Fiesta Bowl for an undisclosed violation of team rules at the end of his freshman season in 2015, then a couple of ugly stomping incidents in the 2016 finale at USC layered on top of two statistically underwhelming seasons.
On top of all that, there were hints at times football was more a diversion than a passion for Tillery.
“I’ve loved football so long, I can’t even remember how old I was,” Tillery insisted.
But without consistency, football wasn’t going to love him back.
“Had Tillery entered the NFL Draft last spring,” draft analyst Scott Wright said, “it would have been a big mistake — not because he doesn’t have firstround talent, but because nobody really could get a handle on who he was and if he had the drive to eventually show that.”
Elston can smile at that notion now, after initially being unsure himself.
“Everyone,” Elston said, “is about to find out what Jerry Tillery is made of.”
Tillery had barely had a chance to settle into a seat on the team bus outside L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend in 2016 when he felt the rage. At least digitally.
“It was hard, it was immediate, and it was coming from everywhere,” he said of the social media reaction to his sideshow in a 45-27 beatdown at USC that perfectly punctuated a lost 4-8 season for the Irish in 2016.
In two separate incidents, Tillery first, with his foot, intentionally nudged the head of Trojan running back Aca'Cedric Ware, who momentarily lay motionless after a helmet-to-helmet hit from ND safety Nicco Fertitta. Fertitta’s tackle drew a targeting penalty and an automatic ejection from the game.
Tillery remained in the game.
Minutes 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, who was on the ground at the time.
Former USC Gerald Bowman’s tweet at Tillery, that he wanted to fight the Irish defensive lineman, was included in the deluge of angry Twitter responses that came Tillery’s way. Even former Notre Dame offensive lineman and current radio personality Mike Golic Jr. came down hard on Tillery’s actions.
When asked about his mind-set in those moments, Tillery fast forwarded to the self-inflicted painful aftermath.
“I learned a lot from it, and I owned both of those incidents,” said Tillery, who quickly phoned USC coach Clay Helton to apologize, and then made peace with both Ware and Banner, who publicly forgave him.
“It’s been a journey to move past it. I work on that all the time, to rehabilitate my image and how I’m seen in the football world. It’s something I’m still working on and will be for a long time, but it was something I did, and I have to fix it.
“I regret it, and it’s something I keep a close eye on. If it never goes away, it’ll be something I have to live with, because this is the life I chose, to play football at this level. The scrutiny comes with the territory, I think.
“Learning from mistakes is part of life. Becoming a better person for it is what I hope comes from this.”
For those who knew Tillery before he arrived at Notre Dame, there was never a question about the kind of person he was.
“I didn’t know him when he was in middle school — he just showed up one day,” said Evangel Academy head coach Byron Dawson, Tillery’s high school coach in Shreveport. “But he made quite a first impression and continued to make favorable impressions.
“Beyond his size, being an imposing figure — which was impressive — you noticed right away what a bright kid he was, how well-rounded he was, how well-spoken he was, how mature for his age he was.”
Even when he first arrived at Notre Dame he was a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps more accurately a gale of it.
During a freshman season in which Showtime’s season-long documentary made him a central figure, Tillery — the son of two nurses — professed to want to be a doctor, and a future president of the United States, perhaps even simultaneously.
The Showtime cameras captured him acquiescing to bringing his helmet into the practice field port-a-potty for a bathroom break at the insistence of his teammates. He had a bromance with fellow defensive lineman Sheldon Day, now with the 49ers but still very much a mentor to Tillery.
“I was just a wide-eyed freshman, wanted to try everything,” he said, “but I’ve narrowed my focus for sure.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have outside interests.
He likes to take in the contemporary art of the likes of Takashi Murakami and Damien Hurt, read biographies, with those of Steve Jobs and Ben Franklin among his recent favorites, sit down with the latest issue of the New Yorker, travel to Poland to study the Nazi concentration camps that the Germans concocted and operated there during World War II.
“It was an intense experience,” Tillery said. “It weighed on me for a long time, going in there and seeing that and how mechanical the death was. It was manufactured death on such a large scale. It was tragic.”
He also does yoga, mostly though, because he believes it makes him a better football player. He and his dorm mates even invited Irish head coach Brian Kelly and ND president Rev. John I. Jenkins to a yoga event at their dorm.
“Coach Kelly was a little stiff,” Tillery offered, “and that’s OK, because he’s a football coach. Now Father Jenkins, he was really good. I have to say, I’ve never seen a priest in shorts. The whole thing was fun.”
Football, inseparable from the scrutiny that comes with it at ND, is back to being fun again, too, even though Tillery has never worked harder at not only advancing his own game, but evolving the skills and confidence level of everyone around him.
“When those things at the USC game happened,” Dawson said, “Jerry and I talked about it a lot. And I told him that you can’t change the past. ‘Just worry about the things you can control. Just stay focused and move on and take care of your business on and off the field.’ And Jerry has done that.
“And now the sky’s the limit for him. He has all the tools, all the intelligence to show people that his best football is still ahead of him.”
In the days leading up to what would be the last game he coached in a career that spanned more than five decades, 68-year-old Pete Jenkins found himself working overtime.
As the defensive line coach for LSU, in his third tour of duty with the school, Jenkins’ focus last December was Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s monsters, particularly All-Americans Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.
But the player he stayed late to watch on video a couple of weeks before Jenkins’ LSU Tigers faced Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1 in Orlando was the kid who turned down the chance to be part of the group that had been awarded the Joe Moore Award, as the nation’s best O-line.
It’s the same player who used to show up at Jenkins’ defensive line camps in Thibodaux, La., even though there didn’t seem to be any long-term reason for doing so at the time.
“They were long, they were hard,” Tillery said of the weeklong camps on the other side of the state during the summers of his high school years. “We learned a lot. We got better there. But if you’ve ever been to Thibodaux, it’s pretty much under water. You go outside, the heat and humidity is oppressive.
“But it was different. I like trying new things. And I liked playing over there. I thought maybe there’s a way this can help my team.”
At the time Tillery verbally committed to the Irish in the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons, college recruiters only read him as an offensive lineman, and an elite one at that. Eventually Rivals slated him as No. 11 at the position, 247Sports No. 7.
Compare that to ND’s last three starters at left tackle — all three eventual NFL first-round draft choices — Zack Martin was Rivals’ No. 22 offensive tackle prospect in 2009, Stanley the No. 15 offensive tackle in 2012, and McGlinchey No. 22 in 2013.
Tillery was the first recruit at any position to commit in the 2015 class and would be Hiestand’s tackle prospect, later to be joined by interior players Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.
But Jenkins loved what he saw from Tillery in the camps and persuaded Dawson to let him dabble on defense at Evangel.
“I thought he’d be good on either side,” Jenkins said. “What made it that way was how the young man approaches the task at hand.
“People who have that kind of talent, the kind of work ethic and that ability to focus — well you’re really lucky when you get them. They’re as rare as owl’s teeth.”
Still, Dawson didn’t commit to making Tillery a full-time, two-way player until his senior season at Evangel. And that was only after Tillery started running, first, 5ks, then participating in triathlons to improve his stamina.
“That’s when I knew he could be an iron man on the football field,” Dawson said. “That’s when you started seeing all his tools. He had a good 40 time. He had good power and strength. He was great with his hands. He was quick. And he kept getting better.”
The Shreveport Times, in fact, named Tillery its Defensive Player of the Year after he made 93 tackles, including 15 for loss and seven sacks, as a defensive tackle.
A couple of weeks before he showed up at Notre Dame as an early enrollee in the 2015 class, Dawson and Tillery explored the idea of him playing defense for the Irish. He then told the ND coaches, who had recruited Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway for the interior defensive line positions in that class.
Only Dew-Treadway is still with the program, and their collective impact has been minimal.
“I’m glad the coaches were open to it,” Tillery said of the 11th-hour switch. “I’ve never looked back and wondered if it was the right decision.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins unaffiliated with LSU during Tillery’s recruiting window but still loyal to that school, never tried to sell Tillery on LSU, which he didn’t rejoin until the 2016 season.
“You could tell he loved Notre Dame very early on and wasn’t changing,” Jenkins said. “When I was at LSU, in the 1980s, I got into a recruiting battle over (eventual All-America linebacker) Michael Stonebreaker. Now with him, I think there was a chance.
“We had a really good relationship, Michael and I did. But I told him one time, ‘Boy you’re going to freeze to death at Notre Dame.’ He said, ‘Coach I kind of like that challenge. I think I’m tough enough to play in that kind of weather.’
“So I thought I better take another avenue. I’m talking the wrong way to the wrong guy. It’s pulled my heart out of my chest to lose him, but he had a really good career at Notre Dame. I was really happy and proud of him.”
As he waded through the game tape of Notre Dame’s 2017 season, Jenkins had similar feelings about Tillery.
“I sought him out after the game to talk to him,” Jenkins said. “That’s not easy to do, because everyone is going in a million different directions, but I did get a chance to tell him what I thought of him.
“He put them hands on people, controlled the blockers, did a great job of getting off and making plays. I was just, very, very impressed the way he performed. He looked like one of my guys playing.”
The buzz about Tillery since that game keeps getting louder, but it’s not just about him. A resurgent defense that has a chance to be the best since the one Kelly rode all the way to the national title game six seasons ago is following his lead this offseason.
“You have to filter out the noise and how great people say you are,” Tillery said. “That can affect you as negatively as people telling you you’re the worst. You can’t believe any of it. You’ve got to stay grounded. You’ve got to focus on what can make you the best you can be.” ❚
The following story appears in the 2018 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.
Notre Dame’s year-by-year leader in sacks dating back to the 1988 national championship season, with team sack total included:
Year | Sacks Leader/Sacks (Team Sacks)
2017 | Jerry Tillery 4.5 (24)
2016 | Nyles Morgan 4.0 (14)
2015 | Romeo Okwara 8.0 (25)
2014 | Romeo Okwara 4.0 (26)
2013 | Stephon Tuitt 7.5 (21)
2012 | Stephon Tuitt 12.0 (34)
2011 | Aaron Lynch 5.5 (25)
2010 | Darius Fleming 6.0 (27)
2009 | Ethan Johnson 4.0 (20)
2008 | Harrison Smith, Pat Kunz, Ethan Johnson 3.5 (20)
2007 | Trevor Laws 4.0 (19)
2006 | Victor Abiamiri 10.5 (31)
2005 | Victor Abiamiri 8.0 (31)
2004 | Justin Tuck 6.0 (31)
2003 | Justin Tuck 13.5 (39)
2002 | Darrell Campbell 6.0 (37)
2001 | Anthony Weaver 7.0 (25)
2000 | Anthony Weaver 8.0 (33)
1999 | Lamont Bryant, Grant Irons 4.0 (18)
1998 | Kory Minor 5.0 (25)
1997 | Kory Minor 3.5 (18)
1996 | Bertrand Berry 10.0 (41.5)
1995 | Renaldo Wynn 6.5 (22)
1994 | Bertrand Berry 6.0 (35)
1993 | Bryant Young 6.5 (26)
1992 | Bryant Young 7.5 (36)
1991 | Bryant Young 4.0 (12)
1990 | Chris Zorich 4.0 (19)
1989 | Devon McDonald 4.0 (22)
1988 | Frank Stams 7.0 (21)
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