One of the most pleasant surprises of this early Draft cycle has been Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery. A four-star recruit as an offensive tackle, Tillery switched over the defensive line in South Bend, only playing a majority of snaps at 3-technique (rather than 0-tech) in 2018. There was a bowl game suspension and a Twitter issue regarding HC Brian Kelly sprinkled in there, too.
Tillery has been a long time coming.
But this season, the flashes of Tillery have been strung together into some mighty impressive performances — none more than the game against Stanford, which is one of the strongest games I have seen of any prospect to date. Tillery ripped the Cardinal line to shreds for four quarters, en route to a dominant statistical performance: 6 tackles, 4 for loss, and 4 sacks. Two garbage times sacks padded the stats, but the tape doesn’t lie regarding the impact Tillery had.
What made Tillery a desirable prospect was his combination of length and power — better served on the defensive line, in terms of disruptive ability (and future payout for Tillery, to be frank). Tillery has developed a strong push/pull or snatch technique by using his off-ball explosiveness, length, and freaky raw power to ragdoll offensive linemen.
Tillery regularly lands that inside hand on the shoulder pad of his opponent, and from there he can operate with a bevy of moves. It gives him initial control of the rep, and with his strength and quickness, a two- or even three-way go: inside, outside, or through.
This is the inside look of that push-pull idea. On the top rep, Tillery finishes by going underneath with the rip; on the bottom rep, he comes with the arm-over. The power in Tillery’s hand here to knock RT A.T. Hall back is wild, even though Hall’s foot gets stepped on — it immediately generate pressure in the lap of the quarterback, forcing him off his spot and disrupting the throwing lane.
With that inside hand, however, Tillery is also able to simply work a long-arm to push the pocket and collapse space. Tillery gets more than a few effort sacks as a result of controlling positioning with his long-arm, reading the drop of the quarterback, disengaging, and exploding into the finish.
Look at how low Tillery’s hips get, and the angle at which he rushes. Tillery has great explosiveness, though he will draw away from that with his weird little false step in his left leg. Watch his knee belly out, and then snap back into place. No idea why it happens, and it never happens on his right leg at all. His lower-body mechanics are a bit weird, and sometimes he seems stiff, but he also has moments like these, in which he plays through crazy angles for a big man and maintains great velocity.
When Tillery doesn’t work that inside hand with power, he looks for a quick swipe move to get to the outside shoulder. I’d love to see improvement of his hand placement and timing in this regard. When he hits the little inside shoulder fake and draws out his opponent’s punch, he often wins the outside rush lane with quick feet to get pointed at the quarterback with his hips.
The punch through the armpit helps him clear hands, and there’s some nice hip mobility to go from square to angled and finish the rush.
But Tillery’s timing on these looks does leave some meat on the bone.
Tillery doesn’t gain enough depth with that initial step, which means his two-handed swipe over-anticipates the punch of LG Devery Hamilton — he isn’t able to knock that outside arm to the inside. Even with his explosiveness and good lateral agility, Tillery is unable to beat the recovery from Hamilton; and here is a spot where he’s unable to drop his hips or his shoulder to flatten this rush angle. He gets pushed beyond the peak of the pocket, limiting his ability to disrupt the play.
Overall, Tillery has a rush profile as strong as almost any interior defensive lineman’s in this class. He projects more favorably to a penetrating 3-tech role than a more consistently dominant player like Alabama’s Raekwon Davis, who is more of a nose tackle/run defender; he has a better physical profile than a smaller Ed Oliver. Tillery’s full body of work against some stronger offensive lines (Pitt for one; playoff competition for another) will help round out his eval, as this game is likely the height of his current ability. But it isn’t hard to see Tillery cashing in on his potential, finally, in his senior season — and that promise will get him drafted early in 2019, even in a strong defensive line class.