Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery not focused on redemption at USC

Tyler James

Jerry Tillery doesn’t have time for reflection.

Not this week at least.

With No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) a win away from a perfect regular season and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff, the senior defensive tackle made his focus clear. He’s not interested in looking backward before Saturday’s matchup with rival USC (5-6).

“We understand that we have to bring our best every week,” Tillery said. “That’s what we’ll do on Saturday.”

In a span of a little more than six minutes, Tillery used the phrase “our best” five times. What Tillery wasn’t too interested in discussing were the moments two years ago that weren’t his best.

In the finale of Notre Dame’s dreadful 4-8 season in 2016, Tillery turned an ugly 45-27 loss to the Trojans even uglier. Twice he made unnecessary contact with a USC player on the ground after a play.

The first contact came when Tillery nudged the helmet of Aca’Cedric Ware with his foot as the USC running back squirmed on the ground in obvious pain after Notre Dame safety Nicco Fertitta committed a targeting penalty with helmet-to-helmet contact on Ware.

Tillery’s action went unnoticed by officials but not to the TV audience. Later, Tillery stomped on the left ankle of offensive tackle Zach Banner, who was sprawled on the ground after USC’s final touchdown, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

On social media, Tillery took heat from both USC and Notre Dame supporters. Two days after the incidents, Tillery apologized on Twitter. Both Ware and Banner publicly acknowledged the apology. Tillery also called USC head coach Clay Helton.

In an interview for the South Bend Tribune’s ND Insider magazine in June, Tillery discussed the aftermath of those moments.

“I learned a lot from it, and I owned both of those incidents,” Tillery told Eric Hansen.

“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.”

But on Tuesday, Tillery downplayed any thought that this game means more for him personally to come full circle from 2016.

“It’s just like any other game,” Tillery said. “We’re going to bring our best and we hope they do too so we can win and we can have fun.”

Yet it’s hard to ignore the parallel recoveries for Tillery and Notre Dame’s football program since that 2016 loss to USC.

After a shakeup to Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, the Irish have won 21 of 24 games in the last two seasons. In his final season with the Irish, Tillery has emerged as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the country.

Did those lows of 2016 create a better 2018?

“You can’t look back and dwell on that,” Tillery said. “I’m looking forward to playing USC on Saturday.”

Commitment to football

Tillery has reached new heights this season.

His peak came in Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory over Stanford. Tillery totaled four sacks, tying a single-game program record, in a dominant effort.

He’s maintained a high level of play throughout the season, but his impact won’t always be reflected in the box score. Tillery has played so well that he was named as one of 15 semifinalists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year award. Only five defensive players made the list.

A day after Tillery recorded his four sacks against Stanford, Kelly praised Tillery’s development.

“He’s becoming a complete player both on and off the field,” Kelly said in September. “That’s what you’re in this for: to see the development of players like Jerry Tillery, and we’re watching it right before our eyes.”

When the 6-foot-7, 305-pound Tillery wasn’t producing, it was easy to question his dedication. That’s typically how sports pundits react to underachieving athletes showing interests outside of sports.

Tillery, who graduated in May with a degree in economics, has taken advantage of multiple trips abroad during his time at Notre Dame and was briefly involved in student government. He’s interested in art, playing the saxophone and studying Japanese.

But Tillery’s focus on football has been clear this season. Kelly said he’s been a consistent worker.

“He’s here every day. Jerry does not miss anything,” Kelly said. “He’s not a guy that — as a high-profile player, he does all the little things the right way. It’s amazing.

“He doesn’t take a day off. He doesn’t ask for a day off. He practices every day. When your best players are putting in the kind of work that he puts in every single day, it sets for a pretty good precedent.”

Te’von Coney, who leads the Irish with 99 tackles, doesn’t take for granted what Tillery does that allows him to succeed as a linebacker.

“I wouldn’t want any other D-lineman in the country to be playing in front of me,” Coney said. “He’s awesome. He’s a great teammate, a great person. He works really hard. He comes in each and every day with (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston, and he finds ways to get better.

“He wants to be there, and he wants to be accountable for his teammates. He wants to be in his gap so I can fit in my gap. When you have someone that just wants to do their job, you can’t ask for more.”

Finding his best

Tillery hasn’t recorded a sack since the Stanford game. He’s been stuck on seven sacks for nearly two months.

Offensive lines have taken notice of Tillery’s pass rush capability and adjusted to prevent him from wrecking games.

“He’s someone you have to take account for,” Coney said. “If you just let him run around, it’s going to be a problem. That’s a guy that’s very talented, can move and is very flexible. I’m not surprised that offenses have to account for him.”

While Tillery has been kept in check, Notre Dame’s defense has still stacked up 16 sacks in the last six games. The lack of sacks hasn’t discouraged Tillery. He’s not interested in counting statistics as a reflection of his impact.

Tilllery, who has tallied 29 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, five quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles this season, knows when he’s done his job.

“I want to affect the game, and I want to play my best,” Tillery said. “When I continue to do that, we’ll continue to win.”

There’s no confidence missing from Tillery. He said he like’s Notre Dame’s chances this weekend against USC, the Walter Camp Player of the Year nomination “doesn’t mean anything to me,” and that the Irish defense can defend anything.

“Whatever an offense brings to us,” he said, “we think that we’ll be able to defend it.”

He even downplayed how the rivalry with USC will impact Saturday’s game.

“It’s like playing anyone,” Tillery said. “We play Ball State. We play Michigan. We play Florida State. We play all these teams and they bring their best. That’s what we’re expecting. We wouldn’t want anything less. We want to beat them at their best.”

Notre Dame’s best has come with different players stepping up throughout the season. Through the first 11 games, Kelly has awarded the game ball to 11 different players. That streak may continue against USC, but if Tillery has a standout performance, it would certainly be a fitting redemption.

Just don’t expect Tillery to be pining for another game ball.

“We’ve had a lot of really good individual efforts,” Tillery said. “We’ve been able to find a way to bring our best every week. That’s how you end up 11-0 and playing for perfection.”

Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) celebrates a sack during the 38-17 Irish victory over Stanford in Notre Dame Stadium. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) reaches for the ball carrier in the 36-3 Irish victory over Syracuse at Yankee Stadium.
Jerry Tillery walks on the field at Yankee Stadium before Notre Dame's 36-3 victory over Syracuse in a Shamrock Series game in New York.