Will first-rounder Jerry Tillery to the Chargers be the start of a trend for Irish D-linemen?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The most intriguing dangling detail when it came to Jerry Tillery and the 2019 NFL Draft wasn’t whether his first-round talent would actually land the Notre Dame defensive tackle in the first round Thursday night.

Rather it’s whether Tillery’s selection so high in the three-day, seven-round talent dispersal is the beginning of a trend for the Irish.

Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem in 2020 anyone? A growing stable of burgeoning defensive line prospects continues to develop behind them.

For now, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Tillery became the ninth first-rounder from Notre Dame since 2012 when the Los Angeles Chargers took him with the 28th pick in Thursday’s first round from Nashville, Tenn. He was the sixth interior defensive lineman taken in the first 32 picks.

“He's a gifted man at that size,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “It's hard to move. His change of direction, his foot speed, for a guy at that height and that size — we're lucky to have him."

In the big picture as it pertains to the Irish, he’s the earliest-selected defensive lineman from Notre Dame since defensive end Renaldo Wynn in 1997 (21st to Jacksonville). The last Irish interior defensive lineman to go within the first 45 picks, incidentally, was Bryant Young in 1994 (No. 7 overall to the 49ers).

“I went into this thing with no expectations,” Tillery said. “I thought whichever team believed in me, I was going commit my everything to (them), and it happened to be the Chargers at 28. I couldn’t be happier about that happening and I’m excited to get to L.A.”

Day 2 of the draft — encompassing rounds 2-3 — kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. EDT. The draft concludes with rounds 4-7 Saturday, beginning at noon.

Cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Miles Boykin, both among the record 135 early entries in this year’s draft, are projected to be selected on Friday night. Linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill are possibilities in day 2 but unlikely.

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.

Tillery almost plopped himself into the 2018 draft as an early entry, but he, Coney and Tranquill all decided to come back for their senior seasons.

“Jerry and I have built a great relationship,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said last spring of the decision process. “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.”

His decision to return paid off handsomely for the Irish (12-1) and individually for Tillery, who took in the draft on TV from Maui. He’ll join former Irish defensive end Isaac Rochell, a seventh-round pick two drafts ago, on the Chargers roster.

“He told me what the defensive line room is like,” Tillery said of Rochell after the two caught up late Thursday night. “He wants to play with me and how good this team is and how close we are, and I think we can win a Super Bowl together.”

Tillery was one of four defensive linemen the Irish signed in the 2015 class, though he was projected as an offensive lineman when he verbally committed and throughout most of his recruitment.

The three other defensive lineman in that 2015 recruiting class — Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum — combined for seven career tackles during their Notre Dame careers. Tillery had that many by himself in a single game, in 2017 against Boston College.

He was a second-team Associated Press All-American in 2018 and made several other All-America teams, despite playing two-thirds of his senior season with a shoulder injury serious enough that it required surgery after the season and the NFL Combine, on March 6.

“I’ve been told that four months after my date of surgery I’ll be cleared for full contact,” Tillery said. “I was in Vail (Colo.) last week for a re-check with my surgeon, and they told me that my range of motion is better than they expected. My strength is better than they expected. So I think that my rehab is going really well.”

Tillery and Okwara shared the team lead in sacks last season with eight. Ten and a half of his 30 tackles went for losses. He had five quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and blocked two kicks.

“He played a lot of good teams and a lot of good football,” Telesco said. “He's been coached very well by (Notre Dame head coach) Brian Kelly and his staff. That's all an added plus."

Thursday night the first three players chosen immediately after the No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Kyler Murray, were defensive linemen. And nine of the first 19 picks were defensive ends or defensive tackles. Three of them were from Clemson, the team that bounced the Irish from their first College Football Playoff appearance, on Dec. 29.

The knock — or at least the mystery — about Tillery with teams going into the draft is to what degree he was invested in football. His multitude of outside interests and inconsistent motor as a younger player made some teams question his passion for football.

Not the Chargers apparently.

"He's a very smart person,” Telesco said. “He has interests off the field. We don't shy away from that. I don't mind players having other interests off the field.

“All of these guys, they play football right now for their career, but football doesn't last forever, either. We did a lot of work on Jerry. He loves to play the game. He loves football. He knows this is his primary job, but yeah, he has interests off the field.

“(Head) coach (Anthony) Lynn doesn't shy away from that. I don't shy away from that at all."

All-American, @jerrytillery is the ninth Player to be taken in the first round under Coach Kelly.#GoIrish ☘️ #IrishInTheNFLpic.twitter.com/XnhUfH0FyZ

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 26, 2019

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) became an NFL Draft first-rounder on Thursday night. Will some of his D-line teammates join him next season?