Tom Loy, 247 Sports

Will Jerry Tillery’s spring performance carry over to the fall?


To put into context what freshman Jerry Tillery is doing this spring, you have to look back at the last time Notre Dame saw a breakout freshman along the defensive line. It was Aaron Lynch. The lanky, pass-rushing defensive end set the Blue-Gold game on fire, unblockable off the edge in his first semester as an early-enrollee college student.

Jerry Tillery isn’t cut from the same mold as Lynch. At 6-foot-6, 300-pounds, he’s closer to Lynch’s classmate Stephon Tuitt, though the image of Tuitt competing in a triathlon (let alone crowd-surfing on his official visit) is a tough one to conjure.

But Tillery’s dominance this spring has been the story of spring football. And as Jarron Jones recovers from foot surgery and Sheldon Day gives some of his snaps to lesser-established players, the Louisiana native running with the starting defense when he should be going to prom adds another intriguing part to the young Irish defensive line.

“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery,” Kelly said, singling out Tillery. “He’s just a unique player, one that I can’t remember that I’ve ever coached.”

So what exactly should we expect from Tillery? Lynch’s spring campaign led to an impressive freshman season, where he was named to the FWAA Freshman All-American team, joining Timmy Jernigan and Jadaveon Clowney on the defensive line.

His 5.5 sacks led the team. He finished third with seven tackles for loss. But Lynch’s 14 quarterback hurries nearly lapped the rest of the defense, teasing Irish fans with a dominance that we’d never end up seeing at the college level.

It wasn’t all great for Lynch during his freshman season. His tendency to freelance kept him (and Tuitt) off the field against Michigan, the fourth-quarter defensive collapse likely could’ve used somebody barreling off the edge. And Lynch’s off-field struggles adapting to life in South Bend led him to walk off the team during spring practice, a bizarre departure that went against his family’s wishes, taking Lynch on a road-less-traveled path to being a late-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers.

Tillery doesn’t necessarily look like a pass rusher in the traditional sense. His size and length will likely having him taking reps on the interior of a four-man defensive front, where both Kelly and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have praised his technique and skill, comparing him to a seasoned veteran.

Opportunity is another factor. It’s fair to assume that Notre Dame’s best three defensive linemen are Day, Jones and Isaac Rochell. Tillery likely falls into the next tier, though slots best in the positions played by that trio. (Imagine Lynch coming into the program this season—he’d be a plug and play defensive end immediately.)

All that being said, Brian VanGorder will put his best personnel on the field when finding his starting eleven. So that means Tillery will be competing not just with the defensive tackles, but for snaps with defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, even if the natural fit isn’t quite there.

Notre Dame desperately needs to find a pass rush from the defensive line. Okwara led the Irish with four sacks last season, the lowest single-season leader since Ethan Johnson led the anemic 2009 defense.

Tillery’s impact won’t necessarily be rushing the passer, though it sounds like he’s capable of doing anything he wants after hearing Kelly fawn over him. But after seeing the Irish fall apart at the point of attack after injuries weakened its core, Tillery could be asked to provide stabilization for a defensive tackle position that couldn’t hold up after losing Day and Jones.

Of course, it’s worth pumping the brakes on all of this. Tillery’s ascent is just one of many spring stories where we have been told that the sky is the limit. For every breakout—and Lynch’s numbers were far less dominant than many of us (me included) expected them to be—there’s been a freshman breaking in period that’s been underwhelming.

But Tillery is far from your average freshman. There’s a (presumed) comfort level that he plays with, and an intellect that reminds you of KeiVarae RussellJaylon Smith and Corey Robinson, young guys capable of seeing the field early because of their maturity off of it. But both Russell and Smith needed a break to see the field, and Tillery’s likely in a similar position.

So as Irish fans work themselves into a frenzy predicting Tillery’s immediate impact, acknowledging Kelly’s attempt to temper that enthusiasm should be advised. But even if his freshman season is closer to Tuitt’s than Lynch’s, Tillery’s on a trajectory to be one of the next great Notre Dame linemen.

Not half bad for a guy most predicted to play offensive tackle.

No contingency plans at safety

Notre Dame v Arizona State

In Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, the Irish have their starting safeties. The success of Notre Dame’s defense will depend on if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

On paper, the duo of Redfield and Shumate match any other back line in recent memory. Redfield’s 5-star pedigree has been well discussed. Shumate’s blue-chip status was well-established as well, an Army All-American and Don Bosco Prep star who chose the Irish over a slew of elite offers.

But the duo has yet to play to expectations. Never was that more apparent than in 2014, when both were given every opportunity to win—and hold onto—starting jobs, but struggled with the transition to Brian VanGorder’s defense.

That struggle sounds like it’s coming to an end. And after both spending considerable time in Brian Kelly’s doghouse last season, the Irish head coach had words of praise for both safeties last week as he gave a status report.

“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” Kelly said. “We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grabbed a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”

Taking Kelly at his word, the development of Redfield and Shumate couldn’t have come at a better time. Because behind them, the depth chart is scary.

Gone is former captain Austin Collinsworth, whose final season was marred by multiple injuries. Moving on is Eilar Hardy, who will graduate and play out his eligibility at Bowling Green, his 2014 season all but ruined by the Frozen Five academic scandal.

Rising sophomore Drue Tranquill is ahead of schedule as he returns from a late-season ACL tear, but taking spring relatively easy. Nicky Baratti is doing his best to play through another serious shoulder injury while both John Turner and Matthias Farley are providing depth at a position that looks like a good fit for neither player.

Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta hit campus this June. But it’s clear the Irish are going to have to lean heavily on the veteran duo, something that Redfield knows, especially looking back on his benching during the Irish’s November swoon.

“Nobody likes to get benched, but at that time, you have to reflect. ‘I’m getting benched for a reason. The coaches have to have some kind of motive behind this,’” Redfield acknowledged when talking with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “So it kind of game me some time to reflect upon it and understand. ‘I’m not entitled to this spot, and I have to earn it every day.’”

That applies to Shumate as well, who made some mental errors that would’ve taken him off the field had the Irish had the luxury of doing so. For Shumate, this is his final season in South Bend, and the last opportunity to put together a season that exceeds expectations, something he managed to do as a scrappy slot defender as a freshman.

A late lightbulb isn’t necessarily rare at safety. Especially in Notre Dame’s secondary. We saw that happen with Harrison Smith after a redshirt and two up and down seasons relegated him to the doghouse. Former Irish GA Kyle McCarthy was just a special teams contributor before turning into a tackling machine in his senior and fifth years.

Zeke Motta struggled before the light went on. As did Jamoris Slaughter. That Shumate stepped into a talented but thin 2012 defense robbed him of the opportunity to learn before doing. Last season was a bit more of the same thing, only his mistakes were magnified by the importance of safeties in VanGorder’s system.

New secondary coach Todd Lyght is two-thirds of the way through spring working with his presumptive starters. VanGorder is spending plenty of time on the back end as well.

In a depth chart filled mostly with question marks, Redfield and Shumate stand alone. Not because they’re proven commodities, but because they’ve already played their way through the fire and come out on the other side.

“I think they really look back on the year and see there were really some tough times for them, but they’re going to be better because of it,” Kelly said.

If the Irish defense is going to be up to the task, Kelly better be right.




In a time of change, Denbrock a constant

Mike Denbrock is a throwback.

He’s the type of coach that existed a generation ago. A top assistant who may have been relegated to the shadows of a head coach, carving out a niche that didn’t usually come with a statue, but brought with gratitude from a fanbase used to seeing plenty of wins.

Denbrock is also a coaching survivor. In 2009, Denbrock was coaching at Indiana State. That he’s back at Notre Dame and the associate head coach and top assistant in one of college football’s flagship programs is certainly not lost on the man who left South Bend after three seasons working with Ty Willingham a decade ago.

That could help explain Denbrock’s mindset. The one that made it easy to turn down overtures from Central Michigan. Not to mention the egoless decision that allowed the Irish to bring in Mike Sanford.

Many openly wondered how Brian Kelly could take away the offensive coordinator title that Denbrock had for just one season, and a playcaller role that lasted just a single game—Notre Dame’s perfectly executed offensive game plan in the Music City Bowl victory.

But while everything around him seems to have changed, you wouldn’t know it by listening to Denbrock.

“It’s almost exactly the same as it was a year ago,” Denbrock said last week, when asked about his role in the offense.

But as the Irish move into 2015 with great expectations, a top-heavy offensive coaching room is certainly an experiment that requires watching. At its worst, moves like this backfire spectacularly, too many cooks in one kitchen.


The brain power and veteran coaches demand a new take on an organizational chart. Just look at the names above the line—Kelly, Denbrock, Sanford, throw in well-respected (and one-time running game coordinator) Harry Hiestand and offensive analyst Jeff Quinn. Only Scott Booker and Autry Denson fit the role of young assistants.

While you expect everybody to be talking peace and harmony during spring ball, that can only happen when the games start counting when you have strong leadership. And in Kelly, the coaching staff has its leader. And in Denbrock, the trusted lieutenant, a man who doesn’t sound uncomfortable with his place inside the program—nor with the boss in charge of the football team.

“Coach Kelly and I have a lot of experience together running the same style of offense and the same ideas and the same adjustments,” Denbrock explained. “If you have a chance to influence into your system the ideas and experience and versatility that Mike in particular brings to the offensive staff room, it gives you an opportunity to grow as a program and improve in the areas that you want to improve in.

“Having another strong voice in the room, while viewed by some as a negative thing, I think it’s an incredibly positive thing. Because it just adds to the discussion and makes it better for our offense overall.”

Kelly spoke about Sanford turning the offense upside down. But some thought Denbrock did the same when the Irish transformed in their victory over LSU. So while Sanford’s DNA will certainly show itself in the season ahead, Denbrock also wants to make sure that the Irish don’t lose the look of the group that physically handled LSU’s defense.

“It’s the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday: Line up, physicality, leaning on the big boys up front to create space for the running backs and getting the ball in space to some skilled receivers,” Denbrock said, as noted by Blue and Gold’s Lou Somogyi. “Playing sound, fundamental football. When I think of Notre Dame football, that’s what I think of and that’s really what we’re trying to get to.

“It’s a beginning. I wouldn’t pigeonhole it by saying every game’s going to look like the LSU game, but I would say we definitely want to enter every week and every game with the mentality that we’re going to physically take the fight to our opponent and we’re going to match ourselves up and see what good can come of it.”

With just two weeks left of spring practice, Notre Dame’s coaches and players will continue to develop the offense until the Blue-Gold game. They’ll have five months from there to figure everything else out. 

So while play-calling, coordinating and overseeing are all still being figured out, whatever his title is, expect Denbrock to help lead the way.



Irish get commitment from ’17 OL Dillan Gibbons

Dillan Gibbons

Brian Kelly sounded the commitment signal yesterday afternoon, catching Irish fans off guard on the Easter holiday weekend. But offensive line coach Harry Hiestand added another piece of blue-chip talent to his future depth chart, with 2017 lineman Dillan Gibbons committing to the Irish.

Gibbons is a St. Petersburg, Florida native, and already possesses an impressive offer list with schools like Ohio State leading the way. After visiting campus last week, Gibbons was ready to pull the trigger and commit, just days after Kelly made the offer.

Gibbons is a long way from joining for the Irish, having played just his sophomore season of high school. But his pedigree and size give Notre Dame another building block, not to mention an early start to their 2017 recruiting class.

Gibbons’ older brother Reilly was a 4-star, national recruit who visited Notre Dame before committing to Stanford. He’s since transferred to South Florida, but it was on those trips where Dillan grew comfortable with the Irish, a love affair that started (remarkably) at Notre Dame’s Senior Day debacle against Syracuse in 2008.

(It worked on Manti Te’o, too.)

Gibbons had great things to say about Hiestand, who continues his dominant run on the recruiting trail.

“He’s the best offensive line coach in all of college football,” Gibbons told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “Whatever he says, I’m going to take to heart.”

Gibbons joins 2016 commit Tommy Kraemer in the futures department along the offensive line. He plays for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowler Mike Alstott at North Christian High School.

Gibbons plans on shutting down his recruitment and getting to work building the Irish’s future classes.

“This is truly the place for me,” Gibbons told Irish 247. “This is where I want to be.”



How does Will Fuller follow up his monster 2014 season?

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Mostly lost in the middle of Notre Dame’s late-season swoon was Will Fuller‘s sophomore campaign. When the spindly receiver crossed the goal line against LSU, he scored his 15th receiving touchdown of the season, tying the school record held by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate. Quite an explosion after a freshman season with just ten catches.

Fuller will enter 2015 as a bonafide All-American candidate. He’ll also be a marked man, no longer capable of sneaking up on opponents.

During coaches availability, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz caught up with Mike Denbrock, talking with Notre Dame’s associate head coach about Fuller’s 2014 season and what to expect in the future.

While the staff expected Fuller to emerge as a playmaker, they didn’t necessarily see a 15 touchdown campaign on the horizon. But moving forward, it’s clear that the expectations for Notre Dame’s star receiver won’t be diminished.

“I don’t think there’s anything that can hold Will Fuller back from being great at what he does,” Denbrock said. “The only person that can do that is Will Fuller, and I don’t see Will standing in his way. I think he’s a hard-working kid that wants to be the best at what he does.”

As we look towards 2015, I caught up with JJ and talked Fuller, his expectations for next season and what the future in South Bend looks like for the next great Irish receiver.


KA: After scoring 15 touchdowns and nearly 1100 yards, what are fair projections for Fuller next year?

JJ: I’m not sure we’ll see a huge increase in his numbers — maybe a few more catches if he can eliminate his drop issues — but I also don’t expect a major drop-off. Maybe 80-85 catches for 1,100-1,200 yards and 10-12 TDs?

KA: That’s what’s crazy to me. Can you imagine what his numbers would’ve been last year if he just made a few of the ordinary catches? A drop on a deep post against USC was a sure touchdown. He had another like that earlier in the season. We could’ve been looking at something like 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Another variable in all of this is Mike Sanford. How does he use Fuller?

JJ: I think that ties into which quarterback Notre Dame goes with.

KA: Good point.

JJ: Fuller and Everett Golson had an excellent rapport, but if Malik Zaire is the guy, ND won’t be throwing it as much as they did last year, which obviously means fewer targets for Fuller.

KA: Can we just get to the point where we kind of acknowledge that both these guys are going to play? And what does that do to a wide receiver’s productivity?

JJ: I’d be surprised if both don’t play in some capacity within the offense next year. To what extent? ND’s still figuring that out.

Look at what Fuller did in the Music City Bowl — 5 catches, 57 yards, 1 TD. That’s a good line, but it’s not the 7 catches, 133 yards, 2 TDs he had vs. North Carolina, for example.

KA: True — And the TD was on a screen that Fuller turned into a TD.

JJ: Which is one of his biggest strengths.

KA: I also noticed that in your conversation with Mike Denbrock, he basically said the sky is the limit for Fuller. You could notice BK’s comments last year changing, too. Early in the season he was still challenging Fuller to be “the man.” By the end, he was basically announcing that he was uncoverable.

JJ: Yeah — that was in relation to my question about whether Fuller could become that No. 1 receiver along the lines of a Mike Floyd or Golden Tate.

KA: I think he’s more of a Golden than Floyd, though he’s probably a better deep threat than both. And that’s coming from the guy who had been waving the Mr Mike Floyd flag since the kid was 15.

JJ: You Cretin-Derham kids stick together.

KA: Amen to that.

JJ: With Fuller, though — I’m not sure he has to be that No. 1 guy. Corey Robinson and Chris Brown are back, and Robinson is his year.

KA: Who’s No. 1? Does it matter? I know we want Robinson and Brown to be great. But they had comparable numbers to Boise State running back Jay Ajayi — no great shakes. And Prosise should have a monster season, I tend to think he’s the guy who takes “the leap.”

JJ: Right, but they did combine for 79 receptions opposite Fuller on the boundary.

KA: Dang it, JJ. Throwing stats like that out really kills my theories.

JJ: I did get a C+ in high school stats, so take that, Mr. Weisman.

KA: Stats. Ouch. Still have nightmares from that class in college.

JJ: Don’t we all.

KA: Maybe we should just get someone to do a YouTube of Will Fuller’s 2014 season for us. As I think we all might have just kinda missed one of the most dominant receiving seasons in ND history. Or maybe not missed it, just spent too much of it complaining about something else.

KA: To close this up, let’s play with some over/unders:

O/U on Fuller at 75 catches

JJ: Under, but not by much.

KA: I’m going over.

O/U on 1150 yards

JJ: I’m hedging based on the QBs, like we touched on earlier.

KA: O/U on TDs at 12.5

JJ: Under, but again, not by much, and that’s because I think Robinson becomes a more dependable red zone threat in Year 3.

KA: One thing that’s really throwing all this projecting off is that Fuller’s going into his junior season. That was the breakout for Samardzija, Tate and Floyd, though he was great whenever he could stay on the field as a sophomore.

JJ: Yeah, and Fuller didn’t have a gradual build-up to his junior year, either. It was six catches in 2013 and then 76 in 2014. Went from a minimal role to a huge one almost overnight thanks to DaVaris Daniels’ two suspensions.

KA: Final bet: If you had to put $$ on it, does Will Fuller spend four seasons in South Bend?

JJ: Yes.

KA: Rationale?

JJ: He’s 6-foot, 180 pounds right now. He doesn’t have the height or the physicality to be a first-round pick after his junior season, just basing that off the top receivers in this year’s draft. He very well could wind up being a solid player in the NFL, but he’d be best served to have three full seasons (so, sophomore-senior) proving his talent in a college offense.

KA: ND fans should hope you are right. And the Irish record books might be rewritten again.