The Chargers make DT Jerry Tillery a rare Notre Dame first-round defender

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The Los Angeles Chargers drafted former Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery with the 28th pick in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night. In a draft with an abundance of defensive line talent, Tillery hearing his name in the first round shows just how much untapped potential the Chargers think he has.

Tillery finished his Irish career with 135 total tackles, including 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. After considering heading to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining, Tillery instead returned for the 2018 season and a move to the three-technique tackle position. In more of a penetrating role, he rose to the occasion with eight sacks and three of those forced fumbles. He tied a Notre Dame record with four sacks against Stanford in September, an evening that showcased the exact skills Tillery returned for his senior season to work on.

“You can’t block him one-on-one. He showed that tonight,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after that 38-17 victory. “… He wanted to develop a pass rush that would really take off, and he’s done a great job there.”

That would be Tillery’s collegiate peak, though. He suffered a torn labrum against the Cardinal, an injury that went undiagnosed through the regular season. Tillery recorded only one more sack, in the regular season finale at USC. That takedown helped decide the game, a third-down sack on the Trojans’ last possession with the contest still in genuine doubt. Notre Dame scored a Playoff-clinching touchdown on the drive following the punt Tillery had forced.

That moment of success at the Coliseum was a moment of things coming full circle for Tillery. In the 2016 finale, the then-sophomore kicked an injured USC player in the head and intentionally stepped on another’s leg after the whistle.

“I’m especially proud of the cycle for Jerry Tillery from the one time he left this field two years ago to come back and play the way he did tonight, have a key sack, that’s really cool,” Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said amid those unbeaten celebrations.

Still battling the torn labrum, Tillery did not manage a single tackle against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. After running a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in March, he finally had the shoulder addressed and is expected to be healthy before his new team welcomes him at offseason activities.

No Irish defender had been drafted in the first round since safety Harrison Smith went to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 29 in 2012. The last Notre Dame defensive lineman to be drafted so early was Renaldo Wynn in 1997 at No. 21 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

RELATED READING: A Thor-ough look at Notre Dame’s defensive draft hopefuls, including a lengthy breakdown of Tillery’s NFL draft evaluation