FOOTBALL

Change of heart? Sizing up Jerry Tillery and Notre Dame's other NFL Draft projections

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The benign curiosity that lingers around Jerry Tillery in the days leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft is whether the Notre Dame All-America defensive tackle would have projected as an even more coveted pro prospect as an offensive left tackle.

The more-pressing, more-pertinent conundrum is what’s in his heart.

A relentless run of film study and body retooling his senior year — not to mention playing two-thirds of that season with a shoulder injury serious enough to require March surgery — would suggest how important football has become to Notre Dame’s undisputed top prospect in this draft cycle.

His eclectic interests outside of it, and intermittent bouts of immaturity leading up to a transformative 2018 on the field raise questions about how sincere and sustainable his surge of football passion is.

“The reason getting to the bottom of that is important for teams is that when he’s in the middle of training camp, he’s waking up sore and he’s getting his butt kicked by veterans, how is he going to respond?” said draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic.

“A lot of times that’s why high draft picks don’t work out. It’s because they don’t love football as much as you would hope. I think the talent is there for him to be a first-round pick. Does the passion match?”

If the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Tillery is indeed a first-round draft pick, he’ll become just the third Notre Dame interior defensive lineman in 40 years selected that high and the first since Bryant Young in 1994.

Even if he slips into the second round, the Irish haven’t had one of those from the nose guard or defensive tackle positions since Trevor Laws in 2008. And in the last 10 drafts, third-rounder Louis Nix III is the only Irish interior defensive lineman to be selected higher than the fifth round.

The 2019 three-day, seven-round draft kicks off Thursday night (8 EDT) in Nashville, Tenn. And by the time the 254th and final pick is registered Saturday, as many as eight Notre Dame players will have been selected, with another six likely to latch on as undrafted free agents.

If the number is eight — and that could hinge on the progress of offensive guard Alex Bars’ rehab from knee surgery — it would match 2014 as the largest Irish draft class since 1994, when ND produced 10 draftees in the first seven-round draft format.

The following is a cross-section of story lines involving the Irish and the NFL Draft:

• THE PRODIGY

Tillery did, in fact, verbally commit to Notre Dame as an offensive tackle out of Shreveport (La.) Evangel, and the last three left tackles to start for the Irish and exhaust their college eligibility have all gone on to become first-round draft picks (Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey).

But at the 11th hour before enrolling early, Tillery was asked by the Irish coaching to start his career at a bigger position of need at the time for Notre Dame — defensive line.

Four years later, he’s part of a deep and elite interior defensive line draft class, which is another factor why he’s teetering between first- and second-round projections.

“I think he’s going to be on some teams’ first-round draft boards,” Brugler said. “It’s just a matter of does it work out when those teams are picking? Is he the top player available for them? I think it’s about 50-50 that he can go late first round. It takes the right situation, the right team picking.”

• THE RISER

Wide receiver Miles Boykin, an early entry with a Notre Dame degree, is a fascinating study in traditional scouting (production/game tape) vs. trending analytics.

Brugler’s colleague at The Athletic, Arif Hasan, gave the 6-foot-4, 220-pound wide receiver the highest “athleticism” grade of any player in this draft and the best score by a wide receiver since 2005, based on Boykin’s spectacular numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine. That included a time of 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

But it’s just one evaluative component. And so Boykin projects as a player likely to get chosen in either the second or third round, which is still a huge step up from his pre-combine projections.

“The combine and the testing portion of the pre-draft process, it’s one big cross-check exercise,” Brugler said. “So if a player tests really well or they test poorly, at least based on expectations, it makes evaluators go back to the tape and figure out, ‘OK, what did I miss?’

“Is he a better football player than I realized? Or does it not show up in pads and in football situations? With Miles Boykin, you can see the athleticism when the ball’s in the air. He does a really nice job adjusting to the football, showing that fluidity.

“I don’t necessarily see that 4.42 speed on a consistent basis. I mean, he’s not just running past defenders on downfield routes consistently.”

The bottom line that pushed up Boykin’s bottom line is the notion that you can’t coach speed. And there are teams that will bank on being able to get the testing numbers and production to more closely align through extensive technique work.

• THE ENIGMA

It’s not just who tight end Alizé Mack is these days that has him squarely in the day three (rounds 4-7) conversation. It’s who he was supposed to be.

“There’s no question the background and the journey matters,” Brugler said of Mack, the No. 4 tight end in the nation per Rivals and No. 1 at his position per 247Sports coming out of Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School in 2015 as Alizé Jones.

“With Alizé Mack, it seems like I’ve been hearing about him from scouts and my sources at Notre Dame for years now in terms of, ‘Wait ‘til you see this guy.’

“He’s a player who has a lot of ability, but the academics were an issue at one point in his career and then when he was on the field, he didn’t really live up to those expectations.

“As a senior, I saw him start to play a little bit better, a little more consistent. But for a player with that type of ability, he just wasn’t able to get more out of his potential. That definitely plays a part in your evaluation.

“He was supposed to be at the Senior Bowl, but because he didn’t fulfill his academic requirements, that fell through. It’s just another thing that you point to and say he was supposed to do this and it didn’t work out. It’s just kind of another thing to add to his list.”

• THE PEDIGREE PICKS

In the first 12 drafts of the 2000s, Notre Dame produced a grand total of two first-round picks (center Jeff Faine and quarterback Brady Quinn). In the last five cycles, there have been four offensive linemen alone go in the first round as well as a second-rounder and a third-rounder.

The Harry Hiestand lineage matters to NFL teams, and it’s expected that successor Jeff Quinn as ND’s offensive line coach will continue the tradition.

“There’s no question Notre Dame’s track record will help this draft class of linemen,” Brugler said.

Yet there’s a chance neither offensive guard Alex Bars, nor center Sam Mustipher will be drafted this week.

For Nashville product Bars it simply comes down to the health of his left knee, which was surgically repaired in October after ACL and MCL tears against Stanford on Sept. 30.

“I think Alex Bars was considered a mid-round player before the injury,” Brugler said. “But he was playing really well as a (grad) senior, so I thought he was kind of on a trajectory where maybe you’re considering him a top 100 pick after the full season, after a Senior Bowl, all that.

“A guy with tackle-guard versatility, but now it just comes down to the medical reports. That’s the No. 1 reason we have the combine. It’s for the medicals — a chance for these players to go to Indianapolis and get looked at by all 32 teams. The biggest thing they’re looking for: Is there a chance for long-term effects?”

Mustipher — a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, for the nation’s best center — is rated the No. 17 center prospect by Brugler and a long shot to be drafted. He was an NFL Combine snub, then tested poorly at Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

“I thought he played a lot more confident this year and he’s very smart,” Brugler said. “But he’s not a great athlete. He doesn’t overwhelm anybody with his play.

“His intelligence and confidence is something he can hang his hat on in a training camp and his Notre Dame background is going to help. But if you’re not a big-time athlete, and you’re not overpowering, it’s going to be tough for you to really stand out.”

• THE FUTURE?

He doesn’t go into the 2019 season as ND’s top prospect for the 2020 draft, but quarterback Ian Book may be the most intriguing at this point.

Brugler has not yet evaluated the senior-to-be with 2020 eligibility, but he’s seen a lot of his tape while evaluating Boykin, Mack, running back Dexter Williams and the Irish offensive linemen.

“He’s not the biggest guy (6-0, 208), but there’s something to him,” Brugler said. “I haven’t seen enough of him to put a round grade on him or say he’s definitely going to be this or that at the next level but he’s a player I have my eye on for next year.

“He doesn’t have that huge skill set in terms of size, power arm, but he makes smart decisions and he’s accurate. Those things play at the next level. So I’m very eager to fully evaluate him.

“What he did last year was great, but honestly it doesn’t matter as much. What he does next year as a senior, that’s what’s going to matter in terms of his draft evaluation in terms of where he ends up. But watching him last year, I do think there’s something there, because he’s smart, he’s accurate, he’s mobile. And you can find a spot in the NFL for those types of guys.”

Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) is Notre Dame’s top prospect in this week’s NFL Draft.
Tight ends Alizé Mack, left, and Nic Weishar run a drill during Notre Dame Pro Day on March 20 at the Loftus Center.

When:Thursday 8 p.m. EDT (Round 1), Friday 7 p.m. (Rounds 2-3), and Saturday noon (Rounds 4-7)

Where:Nashville, Tenn.

TV:ABC, ESPN, NFL Network

Live Stream:ESPN app, NFL app