Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery has plenty to gain at NFL Combine

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

What Jerry Tillery will have to prove at the NFL Combine can’t be measured in inches, seconds or pounds.

The former Notre Dame defensive tackle should perform well in the testing portions of the annual scouting event in Indianapolis. But draft analysts expect Tillery to be grilled by NFL personnel about his love for football.

“In any other walk of life, being a renaissance man and having a wide range of interests is a positive, but not in the NFL,” said Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “They want to know that you’re 110-percent committed and you’re a football robot. That’s the biggest thing Jerry Tillery has to answer.”

Tillery’s travels to the likes of Japan, South Africa and Ireland, and dedication to expanding his education while at Notre Dame could be held against him. But if the 6-foot-7, 305-pound Tillery wants to prove how much he loves football, news that he played the final eight games of the season with a torn labrum should be a good start.

The Athletic’s Pete Sampson reported in a profile on Tillery this week that he suffered the injury to his right shoulder in the Stanford game in late September. Sampson reported Tillery has surgery scheduled for after the combine, but he will still complete his workout this week.

Wright named Tillery, who finished the season with 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks, as the former Irish player with the most to gain at the combine.

“He should test really well. He’s scheme diverse, and he’s shown flashes of brilliance,” Wright said. “The key for him is going to be answering those questions in the interviews. Jerry Tillery has a lot to gain.”

The Irish will be represented by eight former players at the combine, which started Tuesday for offensive linemen, running backs and specialists. The event began with medical evaluations, measurements and team interviews and concludes with on-field workouts.

The first group of workouts for offensive linemen, running backs and specialists will happen Friday. Tight ends, quarterbacks and wide receivers will work out on Saturday, with defensive linemen and linebackers scheduled for Sunday, and defensive backs the last to perform Monday.

Tillery currently projects as the leading candidate to be the first Notre Dame player to be selected in April’s NFL Draft with some mock drafts having him selected as high as the late first round. But cornerback Julian Love, a Thorpe Award finalist last season for the best defensive back in college football, might not be far behind.

The question marks for Love, who left the Irish after three seasons, will be more physical than mental. His time in the 40-yard dash will likely play a significant role in his draft stock.

“There are some positions where the 40 time is overblown in terms of how it can impact your draft stock. Cornerback is not one of them,” Wright said. “It’s important there. He’s worst-case probably a top-75 pick. He’s going to be a day-two pick (rounds 2 and 3).”

Where Love slots on the cornerback board could come down to hundredths of a second.

“If he can get somewhere in the 4.4s, that would be a win,” Wright said. “If he’s in the 4.5s, it’s probably still a bit of a question mark. The line of demarcation is he has to get (better than) 4.55. Anything (slower than) that is going to be a big concern.”

Speed will also be a question for wide receiver Miles Boykin to answer. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Boykin opted to not pursue a fifth season at Notre Dame in order to turn pro, despite only spending one season as a full-time starter. Boykin will need to have an impressive workout, Wright said, because the wide receiver class is deep this year.

“The concern on film is his ability to separate, although I’ve heard that he’s going to work out a lot better than we expect,” Wright said. “A lot of times those things like a great broad jump and vertical jump usually translate to a good 40-yard dash too. We’ll see if maybe he is a little more impressive of a physical specimen than we thought in terms of his speed and athleticism. That will help him.

“I think he’s a day-three pick right now, but depending how he works out, he could be a fourth-round pick or he could be a seventh-round pick. There’s that wide of a range. He has a lot riding on the workouts.”

The best bet to impress with his speed from the Notre Dame contingent should be running back Dexter Williams. Scouts will want to see numbers to match the speed on film, but Wright said he has a bigger question to answer as a pass catcher.

“At the Senior Bowl he dropped a few balls,” Wright said. “He has to convince teams that he has those natural hands and can be a weapon out of the backfield. That’s almost a prerequisite in today’s NFL.”

Williams caught 16 passes for 133 yards and one touchdown in nine games last season at Notre Dame.

The position-group workouts will also be a big opportunity for linebacker Te’von Coney. More important than Coney’s straight-line speed will be his fluidity in moving in different directions.

“When he’s working in reverse, he has to show a base line range of mobility in coverage and going sideline to sideline,” Wright said. “Those positional drills where he’s moving around and showing his ability to work in space are going to be huge for Coney.”

Coney’s running mate at linebacker, Drue Tranquill, should fare well in the testing portions. His background as a former safety should prepare him for the demands of being a well-rounded linebacker. But as no surprise, Wright thinks Tranquill will blow NFL personnel away in interview sessions.

“Where he’s going to kill it is the meetings with the teams,” Wright said. “He’s such an impressive kid. Everybody who has been around him just raves about Drue Tranquill. In that 15-minute interview, he might convince somebody that he’s their guy.”

The interview room will be where tight end Alizé Mack will have important questions to answer. An academic suspension for the 2016 season and a suspension from the Citrus Bowl at the end of the 2017 season will likely be topics. If Mack can prove those issues are in the past, a strong workout could propel him up the board.

“I have a day-three grade on him right now because of character concerns, but I think you could make the argument that he’s a top-100 talent,” Wright said. “He’s another guy who’s going to have to really kill it in those interview rooms more so than anything on the field.”

Offensive lineman Alex Bars will be the only one of the eight former Notre Dame players at the combine who is expected to skip most of the physical testing. He’s still recovering from his season-ending ACL and MCL injury in his left knee, sustained in late September. That doesn’t mean Bars will be ignored.

Wright predicted Bars will gain some momentum as the draft nears and compared him to former Nebraska offensive lineman Spencer Long, who was selected in the third round by the Washington Redskins in 2014, despite missing the last half of his senior season with a knee injury.

“I don’t know if Bars is going to go quite that early, but I could see him being an early day-three pick,” Wright said. “He’s an underrated prospect right now.”

Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) is Notre Dame’s top prospect in this week’s NFL Draft.
Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) defends during the Notre Dame-Clemson Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.