Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 37 of 63

38 MAY 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI I n 2017, the decisions by offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson to not turn pro became one of the most impor- tant factors to improve Notre Dame from 4-8 to 10-3. In 2018, it is the Fighting Irish de- fense's turn to benefit from decisions to stay put in college. Top lineman Jerry Tillery and standout linebacker Te'von Coney both submitted their names for NFL evaluation this win- ter, but both early enrollees in the spring of 2015 opted to use their final seasons of college eligibility in 2018. Their return — especially with fifth- year senior captain Drue Tranquill, who also could have turned pro — gives Notre Dame one of the most vet- eran defensive units in America (nine of 11 starters back from 2017), along with its three most productive play- makers. All three also have shifted to new positions expected to enhance their impact and NFL prospectus. The progress of Coney remains con- spicuous compared to a year ago at this time when all three senior line- backers — rover Tranquill, plus seniors Nyles Morgan (Mike) and Greer Mar- tini (Buck) — were named captains. "He was missing in action last spring," head coach Brian Kelly said of Coney. "We didn't know where he was. He did not have a very good spring, and consequently it put him behind going into August." "It was a mental thing — just battled my own things, battled my own strug- gles and myself," Coney reflected when asked about the spring of 2017. "As the fall went on the coaches kept telling me just trust the process, focus on being in control. … When I did that, things began to fall for me." By mid-season Coney was sharing time with Martini at Buck in a three- man inside rotation with Morgan. By the end of the season, highlighted by a career-high 17-tackle performance in the 21-17 Citrus Bowl win versus LSU, Coney was one of the two or three most improved players on the entire roster. His 116 tackles were the most at the school since Manti Te'o accu- mulated 133 in 2012, and his 13 tackles for loss were the most by an Irish non- senior since lineman Stephon Tuitt garnered that same total in 2012. "He is somebody who is unmistak- able now on the field," Kelly said. Coney said getting used to a new scheme and reshaping his body un- der first-year director of performance Matt Balis were his main adjustments in 2017. Nevertheless, he recognized there were at least two areas that needed more upgrade. One is pass coverage. While his downhill skills were showcased in 2017, seldom was Coney on the field in passing situations. Martini was a more accomplished player in that area, and others could cover for Coney — liter- ally and figuratively — whose skills were used primarily as a run stopper. "I just wasn't a complete player last year," Coney said. "I think I did great things, but there was more in the tank for me. I knew that this coaching staff would be able to get me to the highest level, and I knew that coming back I'd reach my full potential." First-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who also is Coney's posi- tion coach, is seeing to it while Co- ney's role as a cover man expands at Mike linebacker to where he can be- come a consistent three-down player. "I need to coach him better in cov- erage, and he is a very capable cover- age player," Lea said. The personal upgrades made under Lea played a role in Coney's return. "Having him last spring and start- ing to listen to him and how all those things work out, I could imagine how another year with him would just help my development tremen- dously," Coney said. The tangible progress in his physi- cal development last winter under Balis also encouraged Coney's return. "He just continues to push me to another level," Coney said. "When I think I'm at that next level … you've got more to go. I think having that attitude and having someone there to support you, he just never lets you fall. Having someone like that is a blessing." While linebacker has been in a state of flux with Coney shifting to Mor- gan's Mike slot and Tranquill going from rover to Buck, as crucial as any position change this year is the 6-6¾, 299-pound Tillery moving from nose tackle to a three-technique tackle slot. Despite playing in the middle ver- sus double teams last year, Tillery eas- ily paced the linemen in stops with 56 (no one else had more than 30), led the team with 11 quarterback hurries and 4.5 sacks — seldom will a nose tackle be at the top in those categories — and was second in tackles for loss (nine). The position change could result in even bigger numbers for the senior. "I see myself making a lot more plays," Tillery said. "I'll be in a lot more one-on-one situations with tackles and guards." "He's virtually unblockable at the three-technique for us," Kelly said. "I love where Jerry's at," defensive line coach Mike Elston echoed. "It's go- ing to serve him well. And in our third- down stuff he's going to move out even further to like a five-technique, get him a little more on the edge." Tillery's concentration has centered not only on maximizing his own skills but bringing everyone else with him. "I knew once I got back on cam- pus," Tillery said of not regretting his decision. "I was like, 'Wow. I'm here. We're doing this again, let's get to it!' I was able to be more intentional about everything that I'm doing and just making the changes necessary. "There have been ups and downs here at Notre Dame. This isn't a place that's easy to succeed, but the ben- efits are so great if you're able to." For Tillery, Coney and even en- gineer graduate Tranquill, the best in college should still be ahead … maybe even like it was for Nelson and McGlinchey in 2017. ✦ Return Game Te'von Coney and Jerry Tillery coming back for their senior years is crucial to defensive success Last season, Coney led the Irish in total stops (116) and tackles behind the line of scrimmage (13), plus was tied for second in sacks (three). PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - May 2018