January 15 falls in the middle of a gloomy stretch on the calendar. The holidays have passed, college football season is over, springtime feels like it may never arrive, and the excitement of March Madness is still two months away. If there is such a time as the dog days of winter, this would be it.
For the Notre Dame football program and its fans, however, Jan. 15, 2018, was a cheerful day. At 6:44 p.m. that evening, head coach Brian Kelly announced via Twitter that linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive lineman Jerry Tillery would both return for their senior season, becoming the latest NFL-bound talent to delay their professional dreams for the opportunity of one final year wearing blue and gold.
The announcement came as welcome news for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who had been promoted to his new role just six days earlier. Coney was the team’s leading tackler in 2017, while Tillery led the Irish in sacks. So far in 2018, the pair has tallied 40 tackles and four sacks and been a critical piece of Notre Dame’s 4-0 start and top-10 ranking.
When Coney and Tillery first arrived on campus, they were roommates in O’Neill Hall, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that they have taken similar paths over the past four years.
“We’ve always been close. Being on the same side of the ball, we always told each other we wanted to graduate and be the best players in our position. Having the opportunity to come back this year, and him having the opportunity to be the best defensive lineman and me be the best linebacker, it was something we always dreamed about since we first came here,” Coney said.
“I remember in the dorm room at night time, I used to challenge [Jerry] all the time to do push-ups with me, where you have to go through a whole deck of cards. Whatever that card is, you do like eight push-ups, then five push-ups, etc. We are always trying to find ways to get better. He has always challenged me to work hard in the weight room. We’re always finding ways to challenge each other, making sure I stayed on my homework, making sure he stayed on his work, so we could be the best we can be.”
Coney and Tillery certainly are not the first Irish players to choose to return to school for their senior season, nor would they have been the first to leave early, had they chosen that route.
Many student-athletes who elect to come back for their final year do so not only to improve their game, but also to graduate. Notably, Notre Dame greats such as receiver Michael Floyd (’12), linebacker Manti Te’o (’13), and offensive lineman Quenton Nelson (’18) returned to school following stellar junior campaigns to complete their degrees and have even better senior seasons.
Those who redshirt their first season on campus may choose to play out their eligibility as fifth-year graduate students, which are fairly common throughout college football. Offensive linemen Zack Martin (’13) and Mike McGlinchey (’17), for example, returned for their fifth year and went on to become first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
Coney and Tillery’s perspective, however, is different.
They came to Notre Dame as early enrollees in January 2015, which meant both were on pace to graduate in May 2018. Few could have blamed them if they decided to forgo their fourth and final season and declare for the NFL Draft. They could have done so and still would have earned their degrees in May.
The decisions were not easy. After numerous conversations with parents and coaches and hours of personal reflection and prayer, both felt that a return to school meant a chance to raise their draft stock, compete for a championship and continue to grow as young men.
“I knew I had more work to do,” Tillery said. “I hadn’t shown that I could make the type of plays that I will be asked to make in the NFL. I knew if I came back for another season, I would be in a position to do that. I think I made the right decision in coming back.”
Likewise, Coney wanted to develop into a more well-rounded linebacker and improve his pass coverage.
Alongside captain Drue Tranquill, Coney and Tillery are unquestionably two of the elder statesman on the Irish defense. They have experienced a lot during their time at Notre Dame — playing for three defensive coordinators, the lows of a 4-8 season in 2016 and the highs of a thrilling Citrus Bowl victory on New Year’s Day 2018. Off the field, they have overcome adversity and shown significant development since they arrived on campus.
“You have the responsibility to be there for the young guys, like the guys who were there when I first came in, like Jaylon Smith,” Coney said. “Just being a role model for those guys and showing them the way of how they can be successful at this great University.”
Coney, who earned his degree in philosophy and minored in business economics, says Notre Dame has helped him mature as a person by continually challenging him, teaching him to be consistent and to understand his priorities.
“Having the opportunity to come here and get out of my comfort zone, helped me grow as a man,” he said. “You have people around who really challenge you to grow and are your support in life. Having the opportunity to come here and grow from a 17-year-old man to a 21-year-old man and just see life from a different perspective, I don’t think I would have gotten that if I stayed in Florida.”
Way back in June 2013, Tillery became Notre Dame’s first verbal commitment in the incoming class of 2015. He played both sides of the football in high school, earning second-team MaxPreps All-American honors as an offensive lineman in 2015, but right away, the Irish coaching staff decided Tillery’s athleticism and 6-7 frame would be a boost to the defensive unit.
Since his arrival, the Shreveport, Louisiana, native has soaked up every ounce of the Notre Dame experience. He studied abroad in South Africa and Japan, interned in Dublin, Ireland, and he credits his first-year microeconomics professor, Dr. Kirk Doran, for inspiring him to major in economics.
“The reach that this place has, what you can do here, what you can get involved in, I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said.
Both Coney and Tillery remain focused and quick to recognize there is more work to be done. Their ultimate goal, of course, is the College Football Playoff and a national championship.
No matter how the rest of the season plays out and no matter when their names are called during the 2019 NFL Draft, both will leave the University with their degrees, four years of lessons and a lifetime appreciation for the Notre Dame network.
“(Notre Dame has taught me) to make the hard decisions in life and to not take the easy way,” Tillery said. “Coming to Notre Dame is hard and I think it’s really paid off for me.”
“The family, the brotherhood and the camaraderie. Anytime you meet someone (at Notre Dame), they are there for you. I felt that on my first visit coming here. I never felt that on another visit,” Coney said. “When I came here on an official visit, it felt like I was already a part of the family. It’s hard to find that outside in the real world. To have a University like this where you’re learning and you’re growing, you need it.”