Jerry Tillery impressed all of us as a precocious freshman capable of stepping into the mix at defensive tackle. The objective as a sophomore? So much more than that.
There are no points for just surviving this season. With an NFL body and skills and athleticism that can’t help but jump out at you, Tillery needs to step into the starting lineup and find a way to become a dominant player.
He’s got the talent. Now it’ll be about utilizing it.
6’6.5″, 310 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 99, DL
A U.S. Army All-American, Tillery was a Top 150 prospect as a left tackle, a highly sought-after prospect as a lineman. He committed early to Notre Dame, but the Irish staff had to sweat out recruiting visits and a ton of pressure from Les Miles, who pulled out all the stops to keep Tillery in Louisiana.
Tillery stuck with Notre Dame, though didn’t stick at offensive line. He enrolled early and began his career at defensive tackle.
Freshman Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting three. Made a total of 12 tackles, including two for loss and one sack. Was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
I was riding pretty high on the Tillery hype train. Missed by more than a little on this one, though he had a tougher job than expected with Jarron Jones lost for the season.
At this point, I expect Tillery to play from day one, and to be the first defensive tackle on the field after Day and Jones. From there, who knows? What’s a baseline productivity for a first-year player who isn’t an edge pass rusher? Especially considering Stephon Tuitt had a mostly anonymous freshman season and Tillery is a different beast than Aaron Lynch, Notre Dame’s last freshman phenom. (That’s a very good thing, it turns out.)
The head on Tillery’s shoulders is perhaps the biggest asset the freshman has. And that’s saying quite a bit when you’re already built like Albert Haynesworth.
It’s hard not to go over the top when discussing Tillery, especially when we haven’t had an on-field reminder that he’s a true freshman. But I’m setting the expectations for Tillery high—call it 6.0 TFLs—knowing that he’s playing behind an established duo and that number should earn him freshman All-American honors.
Tillery’s suspension for the Fiesta Bowl—and his interest in so many different things away from football—candidly drop my expectations for him as a football player. I’m willing to give him a mulligan for the immaturity showed in Arizona, but I worry that football might not ever be important enough to him.
Notre Dame wants people like Tillery in the program, and there’s no negative about being a serious student-athlete and an aspiring renaissance man. But the Irish need their 6-foot-6, mountainous men with athleticism in spades to want to dominate on the football field, and Tillery hasn’t shown that he’s that interested in doing it yet.
It doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It just means this is a huge season for him. Stephon Tuitt had a quiet freshman season and was suspended a game as a freshman. Tillery doesn’t need to make a leap like the one Tuitt did, but he’s got to show the intensity and desperation that great ones show.
Just looking at Tillery you’d think Notre Dame has their next NFL defensive lineman. But he’s got to play like it now.
I’m expecting a big step forward this season from Tillery, who won’t explode like Tuitt, but should get into the high single-digits for TFLs and find a way to impact the game more as a three-technique rather than a nose tackle. With the opportunity for a high snap count as the team’s only legitimate option to replace Sheldon Day, Tillery needs to learn how to play fast and wreak havoc, as it’s no longer enough to just hold up at the point of attack.
If there’s an undervalued guy on the defense right now, there’s an argument that it’s Tillery. (Heck, I did it in the 750 words above here.) But after a subpar spring, a bad finish to the end of last season, and so many other things taking his interest as a student-athlete, Tillery needs to make a commitment to being great for it to have a chance of happening.
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