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 Russell, Jaylon 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.