Even without Jones, expectations clear for Gilmore’s DL

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Keith Gilmore‘s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Brian VanGorder, two football lifers who have known each other since they shared a huddle as players. After a long coaching career, Gilmore also reunites with Brian Kelly, a coach he’s worked for at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame.

After spending time at Illinois with Ron Zook and the past two seasons at North Carolina, Gilmore is not just getting reacquainted with Kelly and VanGorder, but also reuniting with Mike Denbrock (who Gilmore worked with at Grand Valley), Mike Elston (who was at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well), and strength coach Paul Longo (who was also a college teammate). So while finding his way around South Bend might have been a challenge, it’s certainly been easy once he’s made it to The Gug.

On Tuesday, Gilmore gave us a look into the work he’s been doing with a young and emerging defensive line, and talked about some of the things we should expect from the group. As everybody else has done, Gilmore joined the chorus praising Jerry Tillery. While he skirted around any declarations or predictions, it’s clear that Tillery is no ordinary freshman.

“I’ve had some good freshman, but the combination of the size and flexibility that Jerry has is a little bit different than some of the guys I’ve had,” Gilmore said. “I have not had a freshman with that sort of length and that sort of athleticism like Jerry.”

Gilmore praised not just the physical traits of Tillery, but also the mental side of the game. And he thinks that the time Tillery spent as an offensive lineman in high school has helped him adjust more quickly to the college game.

“He understands football. Being an ex-offensive lineman he knows some of the blocking schemes and the things that are happening to him and he’s able to anticipate where he should go and what he should do,” Gilmore explained. “So it’s been a blessing for him and for me that he’s had that offensive line experience.”

Anchoring the unit is senior Sheldon Day. While expectations for the senior are sky high, Gilmore talked about putting an emphasis on rushing the passer, and how Day’s final season in South Bend could benefit from the offseason work they’ve done as they adjust not just techniques but the thought process of being a pass rusher.

“Part of it was a mindset. Just having a mindset that we’re going to rush the passer and putting a lot of attention and focus on that,” Gilmore said. “I think that he’s had the skill-set all along, but just refining it and making sure [pass rushing] is a priority for us, more than anything.”

Gilmore has worked with his share of talented defensive linemen, most recently North Carolina’s Kareem Martin, who put together a monster senior season (21.5 TFLs, including 11.5 sacks), propelling him to a third round selection. If Day wants to make noise at the next level, it’s clear that he’s going to have to find an added dimension in the pass rush, as well as make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. Gilmore understands that aspect of the game, especially as it equates to the next level.

“Especially those with pro aspirations, that’s what you have to do. If you can’t rush the passer and you can’t get vertical and be a penetrator and create havoc, it’s really hard to play at the next level,” Gilmore said.

That’s been a teaching emphasis this spring and fall, with Notre Dame’s defensive linemen having to continue to learn a different philosophy while playing in VanGorder’s system. And that type of technique has been a mainstay in Gilmore’s teaching arsenal, a big reason why he’s in South Bend working with VanGorder.

When asked about the change between the Irish defensive front in the previous scheme compared to what it was now, Gilmore helped explain the transition his personnel was working through.

“They were head up on guys and converting their pass rushes as opposed to getting in gaps and teeing it off and letting it fly,” Gilmore said, talking specifics about the difference between the two-gap philosophy deployed and the one now being utilized. “Coach VanGorder, having that ex-pro experience, that’s what he’s used to and that’s what he wanted. And I think in year two, guys have a better understanding of what the expectation is for what the defense is and what is involved.”