Keeping it on the bright side
Alex Carson | Thursday, September 24, 2015
Before the 2015 season even started, senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day introduced the world to Terry Jillery.
Never mind the fact there isn’t a player by that name on the Irish roster.
“Yeah, they flipped the letters of my name,” freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery said during Sept. 8’s episode of Showtime’s ‘A Season With Notre Dame.’ “I don’t get it. It’s kind of stupid to me.”
And while he introduced the nickname to the world in August, Day didn’t invent it, he said — that honor is shared between senior Romeo Okwara and junior Isaac Rochell.
“I think Isaac and Romeo came up with the name, and Jerry just kinda blew it off a couple times, and it just kinda stuck with him,” the senior captain said. “He would mess up on a play and we’d be like, ‘Alright, Terry,’ or he’d do something good and be like, ‘Alright, Terry.’ It just kinda stuck after a while.”
Tillery said the kidding doesn’t bother him all that much. He endured plenty of that in his childhood.
“I grew up with three older sisters, so that’s nothing new to me, being teased and picked on,” Tillery said. “ … I understand it’s all in good fun; we’re having fun with each other.”
It’s the personal side of Notre Dame’s defensive line the world sees: a bunch that always tries to stay on the bright side.
“We do have fun, we have a great time,” Rochell said. “We also have our very serious times, so I think you have to enjoy it while doing it; it’s such a long season.”
Day, now in his second year as a captain for the Irish, sees the fun the group has as the best way to reach its goals.
“We expect the highest out of people, and if we can’t be positive around them, how can we get the best out of them?” the Indianapolis native said. “We definitely promote a positive attitude in the D-line room.”
And for the members of the Irish defensive line, the best they can be means being the top unit in the sport.
“We’re trying to be the best D-line in the country,” Okwara said. “We go to practice with the mindset every day that we have to dominate whoever we’re playing, so I think it’s coming together as a defense, that’s what we do.”
“I don’t think there’s a reason why we can’t be [the best D-line],” Rochell said. “I think if we don’t end up being the best D-line in the country, it’s because we weren’t trying to or we were being lazy.
“We have a lot of potential, but I was just telling them my dad used to always say, ‘Potential and a quarter can get you a cup of coffee.’ Potential really doesn’t mean anything. We have potential — we just have to keep grinding.”
Tillery and Okwara said Day, the two-time captain, is the undisputed leader of the unit.
“He’s shown me the way,” Tillery said. “He’s been where I want to be, he’s going where I want to go. He knows the position in and out, and that’s where I want to be.”
“Just his mindset [is big],” Okwara said of Day. “Going to practice every day, working on his tools. Not taking any breaks on any snaps. Going into the practice with the mindset he has to dominate every game.”
Day, who missed the Louisville and USC games last year with a knee injury, said the toughest part of his captaincy was learning to lead off the field.
“Low points — I would definitely say not being out there leading them because I was more of a lead-by-example guy,” Day said. “So I had to sit back and observe and learn how to talk to the players and see how I could communicate with them.
“But the highs, just seeing people watch me work and seeing how much they look up to me and mimic me — I just try and be a leader and try to hold everyone accountable.”
While the defensive lineman have fun with each other, they also enjoy their time on the field running defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s ever-changing schemes.
“We definitely love him, especially running his defense, an NFL-style defense,” Okwara said. “It’s a lot of fun, and BVG comes to practice every day with an intensity we love. We love being around him, so we love playing for him.”
“He always switches everything up, you always have to keep on your toes,” Rochell said. “ … He’s really aggressive, so it’s fun to play under his system.”
For most of the offseason, it appeared as if the starting four on the line would be easy to call — but when senior Jarron Jones went down with a season-ending MCL injury in fall camp, the mixture changed.
“It was definitely a very down moment for the D-line,” Day said. “We lost a brother, especially someone who was trying to come back from an injury to then have another one, it was definitely hard for us.”
Jones had missed the end of the last season with a foot injury but was back on track to return to the starting lineup for the 2015 campaign.
“I just hated it for him because he just came back, he worked really hard over the offseason to make a comeback, so it was tough to see him go down,” Rochell said.
But there wasn’t time to sulk about the injury, Okwara said.
“It’s obviously very devastating when any of our teammates go down, but … we can’t dwell on the past,” Okwara said. “The next guy steps in and does the same job Jarron did.”
For the Irish, the ‘next guy in’ became two: Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage.
“We looked to Jerry and Cage and kind of uplifted them to make sure they played at the same level Jarron did,” Day said.
“We always have a lot of confidence in our guys that are next, the next man in, so we didn’t really stress that much,” Rochell said. “We knew those guys had to come in and play at a higher level.
“Jerry had to come in and play like a junior or senior, he couldn’t play like a freshman, and he’s done well. Initially it was tough, and it was sad because you love Jarron, but we weren’t stressed over the next guys in.”
For Tillery, it was far from obvious he’d end up a defensive lineman at Notre Dame; he was considered by most a prospect on the other side of the ball along the offensive line.
“The opportunity presented itself to move to defense, and I took it,” the freshman said. “I haven’t looked back.”
Tillery said the opportunity to contribute early helped him make the decision to move to the defensive line.
“I just wanted to help the team however I could, and I felt this was the way to do it the fastest,” Tillery said. “It’s worked out for me.”
Okwara said the success Tillery and Cage have had boils down to their work ethic on the practice field.
“When [Tillery] came here in the spring, there were a lot of things he had to work on,” Okwara said. “And I think he picked it up pretty well. Obviously in a starting role now, he has a lot on his plate, and I think he’s doing a great job of coming to practice every day and working on the things he needs to work on to be a better player.
“Daniel’s the same way. He comes to practice with the same mindset, that he has things to work on. He also has a lot on his plate like Jerry, sharing the starting role.
“They know they have to come to practice every day and work hard so they can play like we expect them to.”
Okwara started his career as a linebacker in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 set but moved to the defensive line when VanGorder took over before last season. It’s a move Okwara seems to be enjoying.
“I love the D-line,” he said. “I don’t care, put me anywhere, but I’m loving the D-line.”
Follow Alex Carson on Twitter: @AlexCarson317