KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has made it clear that every position is up for grabs. No one has taken more advantage of that than Jacob Gilliam.
Since he was 7 years old, Gilliam has been cheering for the Volunteers, dreaming about what it would be like to run through the “T” on a Saturdays.
After starting for two years at left tackle at Farragut High School, Gilliam was selected to play in the Tennessee-Kentucky Border Bowl his senior year.
When he received a call at halftime of that game from former UT offensive line coach James Cregg, it was then that the Knoxville native realized his dream of playing for the Vols would become a reality, as a walk-on.
Three coaching staffs and four offensive line coaches later, Gilliam knows Tennessee is where he wanted to be and now he is getting his opportunity despite much adversity. He has waited his turn.
In his four years at Tennessee, Gilliam has had to rehab various injuries and has seen action in just three games. While he has waited for his chance, he has learned from several potential NFL Draft selections such as Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone.
"I tried to learn as much as I could from them," said Gilliam. "Even though they're the same age as me, they were obviously superior athletes. I learned as much as I could during my time here. Once they left, I knew that things were about to get real for me."
Regardless of all that adversity, Gilliam never wavered.
"Nothing is guaranteed ever, especially for a walk-on," said Gilliam. "Anybody that's been a walk-on knows that. You have to come to work every day, no matter how you feel or what it's like. You have to outwork somebody that they have obviously invested a lot of time and money into. That's what I try to come with every day, knowing that at moment's notice, I can be replaced."
Now a redshirt senior walk-on, Gilliam is earning first-team reps in his final spring practice and knows what offensive line coach Don Mahoney expects.
"Personally, I've tried to work as hard as I can every offseason to improve my craft," Gilliam said. "For me, this has been building over the past four years. I'm just trying to reap the benefits right now."
CALL HIM SAM OR CALL HIM LEO
Junior Curt Maggitt is an undeniable leader of the Tennessee team. In addition to his vocal nature, one of the ways he is showing his leadership is through his versatility and "do anything for the team" mentality. Having played SAM linebacker for throughout his time at Tennessee, Maggitt is also spending time on the defensive line as the Vols' LEO.
"We are playing him in a number of those spots," said Butch Jones. "We want him to continue to learn. The LEO position is a hybrid outside linebacker so he has to be able to do both in terms of rushing the passer, dropping in coverage, playing a tight end in man-to-man. So we are going to ask a lot out of him."
Maggitt has taken to the role with open arms and continues to learn on a daily basis.
"I think I'm doing OK," said Maggitt, who missed all of last season with various injuries. "I know I can get a lot better. I've been talking to (Graduate Assistant Walter) Stewart, it's a lot of small things I can work on, my first step, my eyes and hands, a lot of things I know I can better at so just working towards that."
Part of the key to success for Maggitt is learning how to play from a new stance -- a three-point stance.
"Right now we are needing him to put his hand down, just so he can get used to it," said Jones. "He has played linebacker as long as he has been, six of seven years old. So we want to make sure that he knows how to rush the passer, his fits, points on the quarterback when he rushes the passer, how do you drop from a three-point.
"All the different things, so we are trying to force-feed him as much as possible right now. He has a lot of volume going on right now in terms of scheme that we are asking of him."
Maggitt is ready to be called upon wherever the staff needs him.
"I've been playing some SAM," said Maggitt. "I've been rushing a little bit. I'm not just going to have my hand down the whole time. I'll be standing up, moving around, and what not."
SUTTON MENTORING MOSELEY
Last spring both Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley were in high school. Now both are in college and Sutton is serving as one of Moseley's mentors in the secondary. After all, Sutton has 10 months of college football experience after joining the Vols during the summer of 2013.
Moseley, who turned 18 years old last week, he been a sponge around Sutton, a freshman All-American, who turned 19 years old in February.
"He's a pretty hard worker," Sutton said of Moseley, who played both quarterback and cornerback in high school. "He's just always in there trying to get into film. He's always coming to me or to the other DBs asking questions and he wants to work. We need those kinds of guys on the field."
Sutton has `definitely' taken Moseley under his wings even though he's not his official `big brother.'
"I'm big brother to all the young guys," said Sutton. "Even if it's offensive guys, I still kind of help them whether it's academics or on the football field. Always staying on top of them."
LANE'S HAND INJURY HASN'T SLOWED HIM
Marlin Lane is still on the practice field despite an injury to his hand. The senior suffered the injury in their first day of padded practice this spring but said it won't slow him down.
"I don't really remember what play but the first day of pads," he said. "I just felt my hand aching and it kept going through practice and finally I guess there was something twisted up in there."
The running back has suffered several dents and dings over his career at Tennessee but there is only one thing that will stop him from running the football in his senior campaign. He says the injury hasn't affected his performance on the field.
"I always say, if there is nothing broken in my legs to stop me from running then I'm going to keep playing and I can run the ball with the right hand no matter if I'm going right or left," Lane said. "I still use it, it doesn't bother me at all. I've had injuries worse than this and played through it so I thought there was no way this was going to stop me from playing."
CROWDER'S STONE-COLD EDUCATION
On Wednesday, James Stone will be in action at Tennessee. But that will be for NFL Pro Day as he looks to impress the scouts and earn a spot on an NFL roster. The man who is in line to replace the Vols' starting center from the last two years is junior Mack Crowder.
The Bristol, Tenn., native is well aware of the responsibilities of the man who touches the ball on every offensive possession.
"It's nice but I have to take over his leadership role which is pretty difficult," said Crowder. "But, I think I'm up for the challenge so we'll see what happens."
Crowder learned a lot as Stone's understudy for the past few years. Things that he is looking to demonstrate on the field.
"Just how to bring the intensity every day," said Crowder of what Stone taught him. "He was great at just never having ups and downs. He was just consistent and that's one of the best things to be as an offensive linemen is consistent."
Here are sound bites from Butch Jones and players after Tuesday’s practice.
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
»(On today’s practice)
"I thought we took some great strides in moving forward in terms of our procedure, our tempo offensively. We were able to run the football offensively, which was great. I thought we had some individuals step up and make some plays."
»(On improving team tempo)
"The big things is, not control tempo, we want to dictate tempo. We are not dictating the tempo like we want to right now. But we have made improvement. I would say, probably a B minus, where it was a D minus after the first scrimmage. So we have made progress. Everything goes into dictating the tempo. It is having confidence in your style of play, it is being in football shape, the mental condition, the snap and clear mentality."
SENIOR RUNNING BACK MARLIN LANE
»(On what he's learned over the past year)
"Just invest in everything, don't take anything for granted. Try and go out there and give it my all in whatever I do."
» (On having multiple running backs)
"It's really good. When one gets in, they're not one dimensional. They can get out there and do something the other backs can't do. I feel like that is going to bring a big impact to our offense."
» (On being a leader)
"I think it's part of my job being a senior but it shouldn't matter what classification you are. If you take more snaps than the person next to you I feel you need to help them out when they're struggling."
SENIOR RUNNING BACK DEVRIN YOUNG
»(On team speed)
“I feel like we are getting there each and every day. We are not where we need to be yet. It is just the small things that are holding us back right now. At the same time I am still happy with where we are at but if we want to be as successful as we want to be this coming season then we need to make longer strides.”
»(On Jalen Hurd's size)
"I was surprised he could move as well as he does because of his size. That shows a lot of the potential that he has and his work ethic, he has been working really hard. I feel like he is someone to look for."
JUNIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN MACK CROWDER
»(On how they can improve based on the film)
"Just us being aggressive and finishing. I mean, there were a lot of times where we didn't fit up right on a block or something but our effort really took over and helped us out. Like I've been saying that's what we're going to be priding ourselves on as an offensive line."
»(On sticking together as an offensive line)
"We have to stick together all the time and that's because we're the only position on the field where five guys have to be playing next to each other, knowing how each other moves and works at all times. Believe it or not we've been together off the field. It actually helps on the field as well. So yeah, we are all the time together and all the time hanging out. We're always just continuing to try and be one unit."
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK CAMERON SUTTON
»(On improving the team's physicality)
"It's definitely going to set us up for the season because if you can go against the receivers in practice you can pretty much go against anybody in the SEC."
»(On being a faster defense this season)
"The thing about it is we're playing more versatile this year. Playing all these different positions, and knowing every position, is going to make us better on the field. We might not be moving as fast or playing as fast, but that mental game and knowing what our opponent is going to run is different because of the position we're playing to make plays."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)