Former Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery emphasizes football as his priority

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Low man wins.

It’s one of the tried and true clichés used to describe battles between offensive and defensive linemen.

At 6-foot-6, 295 pounds, Jerry Tillery shouldn’t be able to become the low man very easily. But the former Notre Dame defensive tackle uses his size as an asset.

“That’s what I have to do if I’m going to have any success in what I’m trying to do,” Tillery said Saturday ahead of his NFL Combine workout Sunday. “You work that every day. That’s part of what we do in practice.”

Tillery’s ability to use length while not exposing himself as an easy blocking target should make him an attractive NFL Draft pick. He said it’s a talent that comes natural to him.

“I’m pretty flexible in the hips and knees,” Tillery said. “I’m able to play with low pad level consistently.”

But that’s not the contradiction that has become the biggest question about Tillery. On Saturday in Indianapolis, Tillery was asked by reporters about his commitment to football, why he’s been described as a renaissance man and even why he doesn’t have an accent that would typically be associated with someone from Shreveport, La.

Tillery didn’t have an answer for the accent question. But he knew how to handle the others. He’s well-traveled, well-educated and naturally curious, and all those things have very little to do with his ability to play football. He knows a typical student likely wouldn’t get asked about those interests in a job interview.

“Not every college student becomes an NFL player,” Tillery said. “That’s my goal. The expectations are different, and I understand that.”

Tillery doesn’t shy away from his outside interests, but just in case any NFL personnel were listening …

Reporter: What did you study at Notre Dame and what do you want to do with that?

Tillery: “Economics.”

Reporter: Economics. Are you going to become just an economics what?

Tillery: “I’m going to become a football player.”

After one more follow-up, Tillery relented and said he wants to work in finance after his NFL career.

Former Irish linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney both expressed little doubt in Tillery’s love for football. They’ve seen his dedication to the game.

“He loves football,” Tranquill said. “For people to ridicule him and question him for having other hobbies is crazy to me. Football’s going to end at one point in your life. To have interests and hobbies outside of football is almost necessary. I certainly have them as well.”

Tillery confirmed Saturday that he finished the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. It’s an injury he suffered in the fifth game of the season against Stanford, but he wasn’t willing to be sidelined for the final games of his Notre Dame career.

Surgery during the season was never an option in his mind.

“That was a non-starter,” Tillery said.

That surgery will happen “soon,” though Tillery didn’t elaborate on exactly when. He said he will be at Notre Dame for Pro Day on March 20, but he wasn’t clear on if he’d be participating in the workouts that day.

Tillery’s decision to play through a torn labrum should be considered as evidence of his passion for the game. But he’s not willing to concede that it impacted his performance to end the season.

“I was still able to be effective for my team and work hard to help us win,” Tillery said. “We did that. We won 12 games this season. That’s not easy to do. We likely wouldn’t have been there if I wouldn’t have played.”

Tillery will work out in Indianapolis. He completed the bench press of 225 pounds 22 times Saturday despite the injury. Tillery said he expects to shine during the testing events Sunday. He prepared for the combine with EXOS in Phoenix.

Four years ago, Tillery started his career at Notre Dame as an early enrolled defensive lineman. A handful of months before that, Tillery had been recruited as an offensive lineman. The position switch has clearly worked for him, but Tillery said Saturday that he’d still be at the NFL Combine if he stayed on the offensive line.

Where exactly Tillery will play on the defensive line will likely be dictated by the defensive scheme of the team that drafts him. He could be a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme or a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.

Tillery doesn’t have a preference and doesn’t want to pigeon-hole himself at a specific position. He wants his reputation to be someone who can rush the passer but also be stout against the run.

“I’m a great football player, great pass rusher. I don’t want to define myself or my role on any team yet. That’s going to come,” Tillery said. “Once that happens, once I’m on a team, I’ll fit in nicely wherever I’m playing.”

For all the questions about what Tillery will become, he made it clear what he is now. He may be the most interesting man in the NFL Draft with a collection of stamps on his passport, but he’s a football player first and foremost.

“That’s,” Tillery said, “what I do for a living now.”

Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery recorded four sacks against Stanford. He also tore the labrum in his right shoulder during that game, but he refused to have surgery during the season.