Spring Mailbag: Tillery, Optimism, and practice updates


Let’s get to part one of the mailbag. Some very good questions here, so check back over the weekend as there’ll be more to come.

Notre Dame’s annual coaching clinic is in town as well, not to mention some key visitors on the Irish staff’s recruiting board.

Between the Mike Brey’s boys doing their best Rocky impression and the upcoming date with Ivan Drago, it’s a big spring weekend in South Bend.


@ReadRoger: Does the emergence of Tillery suggest a continuing issue of a lack of playmakers on the D line?

I don’t see it that way. I see it as a “Holy Bleep, Jerry Tillery is going to be really, really good.”

Again, it’s time to immediately tamp expectations. Kelly did his best to do that after raving about Tillery, but it’s worth doing it again here.

Any true freshman—especially one along the defensive line—is only capable of making a marginal impact. (Look at what Aaron Lynch did.) But as you look at the depth chart up front, Tillery has a chance to immediately insert himself into a young second wave, behind a talented tackle duo of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones.

Talented isn’t necessarily code for playmakers. And if Day is going to play to the expectations the staff has for him, he’s going to need to make some plays in the backfield. He returned for his senior season to prove that he can do that.

Jones also has a high ceiling, maybe even higher than Day’s. But he’s in the middle of a rehab process that’s considerable, and will need to work his way into shape before fall camp.

But after watching Isaac Rochell come into his own as a true sophomore, I’m expecting a breakout season from him, a key at the strong-side. And finding a good platoon between Andrew Trumbetti and senior Romeo Okwara, and there’s no shortage of capable players.

Where Tillery plays will be interesting. There aren’t too many 6’6.5″ rush ends, and Kelly talking about Tillery’s hand skill and athleticism makes me think he’s a guy who will spell Jones or Day on the inside.

But as we still look for someone to generate a pass rush, Tillery’s quick ascent, something I’m not surprised about in the least, is a great spring story.


aisforara: Why do so many of us feel optimistic about the Irish in 2015, when the team is 2-5 in its last seven games?

Because it was fairly easy to see why the Irish went 2-5, and I don’t think it was a shortage of talent.

Beating LSU was a key to the 2015 revival. And so was the emergence of Malik Zaire, proving that he could win football games if Everett Golson continues to put the ball at risk.

Young teams take lumps. They lose games—sometimes in the most maddening ways imaginable. But look at this offense. I’ve never seen a deeper group in my time following this team. Maybe some of Holtz’s rosters had better skill players, but I’m not sure if that’s true, either.

Ultimately, the defense needs to step up. And the offense needs to get out of its own way. Bringing in Mike Sanford was a game-changing move for Brian Kelly. But continuing to bet on Brian VanGorder was a gamble as well.

This will easily be the most talented football team of the Brian Kelly era. What that means? We won’t know until September.


luckoirish23: I have watched und.com spring practice report videos for several years; however this spring there has only been one video that was actually long enough for one of your breakdowns. Any idea why we are getting such short videos? Why Jac Collinsworth and no Jack Nolan? Do you think BK is trying to protect his QBs from a media frenzy of interpretations and message board drama? I miss those spring weather reports, position spotlights, and 3 minute practice cut ups….

Remember those videos? Those were fun. I was beginning to think I was the only one missing them. How else would we know Corey Robinson can make catches like Spiderman or Joe Schmidt might actually be a good inside linebacker?

But here’s the thing. That run the men’s basketball team is making? It’s killing our highlight packages. (But this one on Thursday night’s victory over Wichita State is pretty great.) Fighting Irish Digital Media may sound like a gigantic corporation, but they’re actually a pretty compact outfit.

Jack Nolan is the radio voice of the Irish. So while he’s screaming “Gotttttt ittttt!” We’re getting shorted on practice videos and the young Jac Collinsworth is filling in (very capably I might add).


Your suspicions are ones that I’ve considered as well. And frankly, it’d be the smartest thing Brian Kelly could do, though he really hasn’t had to thanks to Mike Brey’s boys.

But instead of complaining about it, I tried to help solve the problem. So check out me and Jac breaking down spring practice, and if you don’t blink you might see a few snippets from practice.


Bars and Nelson impressing at left guard

Quenton Nelson

Matt Hegarty’s unexpected departure opened up a job along the offensive line. With fifth-year center Nick Martin back in the middle, Hegarty choosing to go somewhere else to play center opened up the competition at left guard.

Sophomores Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson were pegged early by head coach Brian Kelly as the two likely candidates to fill the left guard job. And one-third of the way through spring practice, Notre Dame’s head coach has seen nothing that leads him to believe that the two first-year competitors won’t be ready come September.

It’s just a matter of how he’ll pick just one for the job.

Both highly-touted redshirt freshmen are as good as they came into South Bend advertised. Yet they both bring a different style of play to the game.

Here’s how Kelly described his two freshmen, and where they stood moving forward in the battle for the left guard job.

“I would probably handicap it in this respect. Quenton Nelson is extremely explosive, strong, and can overwhelm a defender,” Kelly said of the 325-pounder. “Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt-freshman. Technically he’s so good.

“You have two guys here, one who physically at times can be dominant, and one who you think he’s a junior, that he’s been in the program three or four years.You turn on the film and to me, it’s going to be hard to make a call because you like what they both do at that position.”

If Ronnie Stanley didn’t return for his senior season, it’s likely Bars would be playing left tackle right now. But Stanley’s return keeps Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman on campus, and allows Bars to fight for the final open spot in the starting lineup before likely shifting outside in 2016.

While Bars isn’t the prototype that Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand look for in an interior player, he’s too good not to play. Kelly was candid about making sure that both Bars and Nelson are going to play in 2015.

“They’ll have to both play. They’re going to have to get in the game,” Kelly said. “It might be that Bars plays some tackle, too.

“If he’s the guard he’s the guard. We don’t see Q as a tackle right now, but they’re just guys that are going to have to play. They’re both going to see some playing time for us.”




Expectations for Jerry Tillery sky high


Jerry Tillery‘s recruitment was anything but ordinary. Long committed to the Irish, Notre Dame held off LSU, with Les Miles and the Tigers’ coaching staff doing everything they could to talk  the local product into staying home.

In the nonstop news cycle that covers recruiting, Tillery never wavered from his commitment to Notre Dame. But that didn’t stop countless reports and stories from focusing on the blue-chipper, especially as Tillery utilized his official visits to see campuses near and far, checking things out in Baton Rouge, along with visits to Arkansas, Texas A&M and… Dartmouth.

The final visit likely gives you an idea why Notre Dame ended up landing Tillery. But most Irish fans weren’t convinced he was coming until he was moved into his dorm and enrolled in classes, a last-minute flip that never came.

But if there was a flip, it was the big change during Tillery’s recruitment—his future position. Long expected to be an offensive tackle prospect, Tillery and the Irish coaching staff concluded that the freshman would start out on the defensive side of the ball.

To most fans watching, that seemed like a concession made by a staff doing whatever it took to keep Tillery happy. But as we’ve seen and heard through the early days of workouts and spring practice, the Irish staff believes they have something special in Tillery the defensive lineman.

Brian Kelly confirmed that praise Wednesday morning when he talked about some of the impressive performances he’s seen this spring.

“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery. He’s just a unique player. One that I can’t remember that I’ve coached,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He’s running with our first group and continues to impress. Today in our 3 on 3 drill, they had a tough time blocking him.”

With Jarron Jones out and Sheldon Day on a coaches-imposed pitch count, young defensive linemen like Tillery and Jay Hayes have had all the reps they could ask for at the three-technique. But in Tillery, Notre Dame has an athlete with the size to play inside by the length and athleticism to play on the edge.

At a legit 6’6″, 300 pounds (Tillery’s officially 6’6.5″ on Notre Dame’s spring roster, shorter than only Mike McGlinchey on the scholarship roster), the freshman has a body that looks far leaner than most 300-pounders, let alone freshmen.

And while some thought he’d be raw as a defensive lineman, Kelly raved about his advanced skill set, crediting the work he did as a high schooler for having him so prepared to compete.

“He has a unique ability at such a young age to use his hands,” Kelly said. “He has had incredible teaching. One of the all-time great defensive line coaches is Pete Jenkins, if you research him at all, he’s revered as one of the great ones, and he’s gotten the chance to coach him. You can see it, in his ability to use his hands.”

With Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey locked into the offensive tackle jobs, Tillery looked like a redshirt candidate as an offensive player. But along a defensive line that’s still incredibly young, Tillery is quickly making it hard for Kelly to tamp down expectations.

“Where we spend the first year-and-a-half trying to get these kids to not drop their head and be over-extended, he immediately can shoot his hands and use his size to his advantage,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the hall of fame, I’m so leery to talk about a freshman, but he’s a unique talent.”